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The Abolition of the BBC Marriage Bar

Miss Freeman had initially supported both the marriage bar and the Marriage Tribunal, indeed she had been pivotal to their introduction, but by March 1937 she had changed her mind. She informed William St John Pym (who, in 1936, had replaced Nicolls as Director of Staff Administration) that she would now ‘welcome an experiment on the other side, namely the definite lifting of the bar’.1 09 Freeman gave two reasons for her modified opinion: the shortage of good secretarial workers and because it was ‘the only subject on which there is a justifiable feeling of discontent among the women staff’. 1 10 Aside from Freeman’s comment, there is scant information from BBC women themselves about their attitude towards the bar. A meeting organised by the Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries in December 1937, for example, was very poorly attended even though the flyer (which was sent to all women staff) included the marriage bar.[1] [2] A key reason why there was no agitation against the BBC appears to be because it did not affect salaried staff or ‘career women’. In teaching and the Civil Service, for example, it was high-achieving women who were hit the hardest and it was they who were the most vocal opponents.[3] The case of Margaret Millar exemplified this. It was because she was a highly articulate professional woman that her dismissal became a cause celebre.

At the BBC, there was a single reference to the marriage bar in Ariel. The October 1937 edition included a short editorial on the marriage bar which indicated that the Tribunal was to be abolished and which approved the Civil Service practice that was to replace it. Joyce Morgan, secretary to the Editor of The Listener, was ‘Guest Editress’ of the issue. Encouraged to add her viewpoint to any article that caught her eye, she denounced the new proposals as hitting ‘the very people whom one would suppose any “marriage scheme” would aim at assisting’; women who, for economic reasons, needed to go on working. Morgan described the Civil Service practice under consideration as the ‘marriage discouragement scheme’.[4]

The future of the marriage bar and the possibility of a Civil Service-style scheme were due to be discussed by the Control Board and the Board of Governors in early November. Ahead of these meetings, Freeman again reiterated to Pym her view that the marriage bar should be abolished. Following discussions with her opposite numbers in various organisations both in the UK and in America, she had concluded that the removal of the bar was ‘more in line with the Corporation’s policy regarding all other women staff matters’.[5] Pym was also now of the view that the bar should be ended, commenting ‘that it probably does more harm than good’.

A former Chief Inspector of Schools for the London County Council, Pym may have been influenced by the ending of the LCC bar for teachers in 1935.[6]

Despite the misgivings of Pym and Freeman, the Control Board advised the Board of Governors to tighten the rule rather than abolish it.[7] The governors, however, were themselves divided on the issue. At their meeting on 10 November 1937 Hamilton was one of two governors who spoke against the rule, although why she had changed her mind is unclear.[8] Ultimately the vote went in favour of the Control Board and the BBC marriage bar was tightened; brought ‘into line with the Civil Service on all points’. On 16 November, women staff were informed that henceforth only those on Grade C and above (those earning salaries of more than ?400 per annum) could be considered for retention.[9]

Yet, though the BBC marriage bar had been tightened it continued to be flouted. During 1938, the eight-month rule which had been introduced for temporary staff was waived for married women telephonists who were considered essential to the new telephone enquiry service.[10] It was agreed that married women wardrobe assistants could be employed in television as ‘it is a normal custom for them to get outside employment’.[11] Following an impassioned flurry of memos from the Catering Manager, married women waitresses also became eligible for work at the BBC.[12] [13] This was later extended to all women catering staff. 1 22 Ruth Field, an Assistant Producer in the Schools Department, was allowed to remain on the staff following the announcement of her marriage in November 1938, even though she earned less than ?400 a year. This was because of its ‘convenience’.[14] In October 1938, Pym suggested to Lochhead (who had replaced Nicolls as Controller (Administration) in April 1938), that there should be a less rigid interpretation of the rule and the reintroduction of an element of compassion for women currently on the BBC staff.[15] Pym also re-emphasised that the ‘right policy’ was the removal of the bar, and he had new ammunition. Attached to his memo was a report from Ray Strachey. In the summer of 1938 Freeman, in her quest for ammunition against the BBC bar, had contacted Strachey in her capacity as Secretary to the Women’s Employment Federation, asking for information about marriage bars in the UK. Strachey responded with a fulsome account of occupations that did and did not require resignation, ending with an expression of her own belief that it should be left to the women themselves to decide.[16] Strachey’s report, however, failed to convince Lochhead.

In June 1938 John Reith left the BBC to take up a new post at Imperial Airways. His replacement as Director General, Frederick Ogilvie, while not seeing the marriage bar as a priority was prepared to reconsider the issue. Possibly his previous role as an academic (he had been Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast) made him more amenable to change and he intimated that he would consider a review, but not until October 1939.[17] But by then the Second World War had begun. Seeking urgent clarification about the situation for married women, Freeman was told that the marriage bar would be relaxed but only for women in Categories A and B (women who continued to work for the Corporation), it remained in force for woman in Category C (those seconded to areas of work outside the BBC).[18]

On 2 October 1939 the new ruling was promulgated to women staff who were informed that, should they marry during the war, they could remain with the Corporation but would be required to resign at the ending of hostilities.[19] In April 1940, it was reported that 43 women clerical staff had since married. The main issues the BBC now faced being whether a married secretary could work in the same office as her husband (it was not allowed) and whether staff details should be altered to reflect their married name (only if the woman herself requested this).[20] The war-time removal of the BBC bar was in line with most occupations including the Civil Service and teaching. Under the National Service Act of December

1941, single women aged 20 to 30 were conscripted; however, married women were strongly encouraged to work albeit with exemptions for mothers of infants and school-aged children.[21]

In September 1941 Miss Freeman was redeployed as Staff Welfare Officer.[22] [23] Her replacement was Gladys Burlton, a well-known staffing expert, who was soon questioning the differing treatment for women in Category C’. 1 32 Although only 24 women were affected she could discern ‘no possible reason’ for the continuing discrimination.[24] In February

1942, the wider issue of the BBC marriage bar was raised; Burlton scathing of the ‘surprising old Corporation policy’. 1 [25] Spurred on to prepare a report, her impassioned six-page critique of the Corporation’s marriage bar was submitted on 17 April 1942.[26]

Burlton identified two major contradictions of the BBC bar: firstly that it functioned despite many aspects of it being disliked by managers and secondly its regressive nature in an institution that held enlightened attitudes towards women staff. Exposing the paucity of theories behind marriage bars, she in turn took to task the domestic argument, the financial argument and the efficiency argument producing a stark indictment of BBC policy. In considering the domestic argument, she contested whether any employer, however wise, was better fitted to decide if any individual woman should stay than the woman herself. The assumption seemed to be, ‘that a girl who has always proved herself a level-headed, capable person, fit to hold a responsible position, loses all her sense immediately she marries and becomes incapable of judging how to conduct her life’. The principle behind the financial argument, that no-one should be allowed to work who did not ‘need’ to do so, logically denoted that ‘no-one (man or woman) with sufficient private means should be allowed to follow a profession’. As to the efficiency argument, Burtlon declared, ‘The idea that married women are as a class less efficient than unmarried women is demonstrably untrue.’ She concluded with an emotional flourish:

Why should we class marriage with misdemeanour, inefficiency, ill health and old age as a reason for dismissing a woman from her employment? Why should a married woman who has devoted the whole of her single life to mastering a profession be debarred from continuing to practise it? This is surely a grave infringement of the rights of women in a democratic country.

Burlton’s fervid words had immediate effect. Two weeks later, on 29 April 1942, the new Director General, Robert Foot, agreed to rescind the ruling governing women in Category C.[27] It was also agreed that the question of married women’s employment would be reviewed once hostilities were over.[28]

But while Burlton may have exposed the futility of marriage bar ideology, it was economic reality that ultimately led to the ending of the bar. In November 1943, Foot expressed the view that after the war, bars imposed by individual employers were no longer likely to be effective as married women so terminated would simply seek work elsewhere. His inclination was, therefore, that following the ending of hostilities, the BBC bar should be removed.[29] [30] In the event, the decision came earlier. On 21 September 1944, the Board of Governors agreed that the marriage bar should not be re-imposed after the war, though this was clarified by the proviso that this would be reconsidered if, at any time, the continued employment of married women appeared to the Corporation to be against public policy.1 39 Following this decree, there is no further mention of ‘Married Women Policy’ in the files.

  • [1] Same file. Pym responded with the information that Nicolls did not consider it ‘anappropriate time to raise the general question of the marriage bar’.
  • [2] BBC/WAC:R49/857: Staff Policy Trade Unions: AWCS 1936-38, Freeman to Pym,17 December 1937.
  • [3] Oram, Women Teachers.; Glew, ‘Women in the GPO’.
  • [4] Ariel, October 1937.
  • [5] MWP:2, Freeman to Pym, 2 November 1937. Handwritten note added by Pym.
  • [6] The Open Door Council and Six Point Group had worked with the National Union ofWomen Teachers to pressurise the LCC to end the bar. The Women’s Library/Open DoorCouncil: 5ODC/A/05, Annual Reports.
  • [7] MWP:2, Note on Proposed Marriage Bar, prepared for the Board of Governors,5 November 1937.
  • [8] BBC/WAC:R1/5/1/ Board of Governor’s Minutes, 10 November 1937. Sir IanFraser also wanted the rule abolished. H.A.L. Fisher, Dr J.J. Mallon and C.H.G. Millis werein favour of retaining only senior women. The views of the other two governors (ViscountessBridgman and R.C. Norman) were not recorded.
  • [9] MWP:2, Nicolls to Pym, 17 November 1937.
  • [10] MWP:2, Freeman to Clarke, 27 April 1938.
  • [11] MWP:2, Pym to Clarke, 1 March 1938.
  • [12] MWP:2, Clarke to Wade, 12 October 1938.
  • [13] MWP:2, Pym to Wade, 2 November 1938.
  • [14] BBC/WAC:L1/1257/3: Ruth Steele Staff File, Milliken to Rose-Troup, 25 November1938.
  • [15] MWP:2, Pym to Lochhead, 3 October 1938.
  • [16] MWP:2, Strachey to Freeman, 20 July 1938.
  • [17] MWP:2, Graves to Lochhead, 12 October 1938.
  • [18] R49/371/3: Married Women Policy: 3, August 1939-46 (hereafter MWP:3), Pym toFreeman, 30 August 1939.
  • [19] MWP:3, Instruction No. 8: Employment of Married Women, 2 October 1939.
  • [20] MWP:3 General Business Manager, 1 April 1940; Pym to Freeman and Clarke, 13June 1941; Assistant Director of Staff Administration to Assistant Head of Staff Records,1 January 1942.
  • [21] Gail Braybon and Penny Summerfield (1987) Out of the Cage: Women’s Experiences ofTwo World Wars (London: Pandora) pp. 157-60.
  • [22] Freeman’s card index file shows she resigned on 30 April 1943, aged 42. In bracketsunder her name is written ‘Mrs Ivin’ indicating that she had married.
  • [23] After a long career in retail Burlton established, in the mid-1920s, the highly successfulBurtlon Staff Agency and the Burlton Institute. She had also written many books.
  • [24] MWP:3, Read (Assistant Women’s Establishment Officer) to Burlton, 19 January 1942.
  • [25] MWP:3, Burlton to Cameron, (Assistant Director of Staff Administration),12 February1942.
  • [26] MWP:3, Burlton to Cameron, 17 April 1942.
  • [27] MWP:3, Pym to Burlton, 29 April 1942. Ogilvie had resigned in January 1942, hisreplacement a diarchy of Robert Foot and Cecil Graves.
  • [28] MWP:3, Beadle to Foot, 28 April 1942.
  • [29] MWP:3, Pym to Ashbridge, 12 September 1944.
  • [30] MWP:3, Clerk to the Board to Pym, 22 September 1944. Economic imperatives alsosaw the lifting of the marriage bar in teaching (1944) and the Civil Service (1946) wherestaffing shortages also made it expedient to continue the employment of married women.
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