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Home arrow History arrow Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC


Gladys Burlton’s analysis of the inefficiencies and contradictions of the BBC marriage bar revealed what had long been the Corporation’s unease with its policy: it was never convinced that married women should not work. Whereas the interwar narrative of the marriage bar in professions such as teaching and the Civil Service was predominantly that of women’s battle to overturn it, at the BBC it was the story of the Corporation’s justification in applying it. The self-serving nature of the BBC meant it was reluctant to dismiss valuable staff, especially those it would be difficult to replace. Added to this was the empathy of BBC administrators towards married women’s appetite for work, both for financial reasons and for the fulfilment of a career. By retaining married women the BBC accepted that it was possible to ‘serve two masters’; both to care for a husband and family and to remain a productive member of staff. This is important because it countered directly the widely held maxim that a woman’s place was in the home.

However, the identification within the BBC of two distinct classes of married women, those who wanted a career and those whose ‘heart was in the home’, was in many ways a truism. In line with the convention of the day, the majority of the Corporation’s female staff left voluntarily when they wed. For the few who came before the Marriage Tribunal, there was a palpable sense of discomfort amongst managers that they should be passing judgement on an individual’s choice about work and domestic life, a sentiment not shared by the impersonal and monolithic Civil Service. Even though this was the model to which the BBC marriage bar would ultimately conform, the ‘intrinsic needs’ of the Corporation continued to include married women whose work was seen as vital to the smooth running of the organisation.

Whereas established professions such as the Civil Service and teaching displayed long-held and deeply entrenched prejudice towards women, the young BBC prided itself on being enlightened in its approach to female staff. The marriage bar, however, exposed a major inconsistency; because it was discriminatory it was out of line with the Corporation’s ostensible policy of equality in terms of women employees. The tension lay in the reasons for its introduction: the BBC saw in its marriage bar a quick fix response both to the economic climate and to the issue of ‘inconvenient’ girls. In none of the discussions leading up to the start of the bar was the issue of inequality raised. Rather, the bar was seen as a natural development: if they operated within prominent institutions such as ICI, Prudential

Assurance, the LCC and Marconi, then surely it made sense for the BBC also to adopt the practice. By doing so, they were conforming to a convention that was accepted by most professions and industries. However, while on the one hand there was confidence that, in terms of the establishment, the BBC would be seen to be doing the right thing, on the other hand there was awareness that public opinion might view the introduction of a bar differently.

How did the BBC avoid scrutiny at a time when married women’s work was a critical issue of equality campaigns? It seems likely that, because it was the lower ranks who were predominantly affected by the bar rather than higher grade women, its marriage policy was kept away from the eyes of the mainly middle-class activists. Within the Civil Service and in teaching, it was these professional women who were vigorously united in protest against the bar, whereas at the BBC this was decidedly not the case. The BBC accepted that women might want to choose both marriage and a career. It was keen that those who were deemed valuable should retain their jobs, particularly if they were in the salaried grades. And it is to the BBC’s salaried women we now turn.

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