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‘Women Who Rule at the BBC’: Four Elite Women

In September 1959, the former BBC governor, Mary Agnes Hamilton, wrote an acerbic letter to The Times. Where were the women in top BBC jobs, she queried? ‘Since the days of Hilda Matheson, Mary Somerville, Mary Adams and Isa Benzie’, Hamilton claimed, ‘women have not appeared in director posts’. [1] Hamilton’s observation was pertinent. By the late 1950s there were proportionally far fewer BBC women in top jobs. The interwar BBC was in many ways a ‘golden age’ for high-fliers, particularly in the mid-1920s and early-1930s. This chapter focuses on the interwar careers of Matheson, Somerville, Benzie and Adams, four women who, on salaries of ?900 or more, were the highest paid. Three of them were Directors. Hilda Matheson was Director of Talks 1927-1932, a time when the broadcasting of the spoken word came to maturity and was at its most controversial. Mary Somerville assumed the title Director of School Broadcasting in 1931, a service she had virtually created and would continue to lead until 1947. Isa Benzie, a former BBC secretary, was Foreign Director 1933-1938, becoming the public face of the BBC in its international relations. Mary Adams, the first woman Television Producer in 1937, did not attain a director post in the interwar years (she applied for but failed to become Director of Talks in 1936). However, post war, she would rise to be Assistant to the Controller, Television.

Already by 1937, the Manchester Guardian was posing the question ‘Does the BBC want women chiefs?’[2] Although its subsequent claim that in the early days of the BBC there had been almost as many women heads of departments as men was an exaggeration, it did pinpoint a reality that by the mid-1930s, only men were selected for executive posts. In its first ten years or so, the BBC did promote women to high status roles; so what were the conditions that enabled this? It was not without precedent for professional women to hold high-salaried positions in the1920s and 1930s. Head teachers of the largest girls’ schools, university professors and senior Civil Servants could all earn salaries that neared ?1,000.[3] As Matheson crowed to Vita Sackville-West in 1929:

My BBC pays me a fat screw, ?900 a year, which is more than almost any other woman I know gets and quite out of the way generous. I mean as women’s pay goes it’s more than many women get in responsible civil service jobs I know.[4] [5]

Others were paid far more. At the John Lewis Partnership, three women earned in excess of ?1,200 per annum while women directors of advertising companies, such as Florence Sangster and Ethel Wood, would have been on similar salaries or above. s Alice Head, the Managing Director and Editor of Good Housekeeping was reputedly the highest-paid woman in Britain, though it is hard to believe she was paid more than the City stockbroker, Beatrice ‘Gordon’ Holmes, who earned an eye-watering ?4,000-?5,000 a year. Unsurprisingly, the press were fascinated by these high-flyers and pioneers.[6] Contributing to an article in The Star in November 1937, Ray Strachey declared ‘Women in these big-salaried positions increase every year’, though she added the caveat that ‘women who win such appointments have to be better at their jobs than men holding corresponding positions’.[7]

Eileen Power, Professor of Economic History at the LSE (on a salary scale ?1,000-?1,250), may have taken Strachey to task on this comment. She claimed never to have discerned any difference of treatment between herself and the men she worked with.[8] Power’s biographer, Maxine Berg, pointed out, however, that she was in truth paid less than her male colleagues, was not put on any professorial appointment committees nor did she sit on any government enquiries or commissions.[9] Alix Kilroy, the first female civil servant to be promoted to the position of Principal in the Board of Trade, while stressing that her working relationships with male colleagues were ones of equality and respect, conceded that her promotion would have happened more quickly and ‘been a foregone conclusion’ for a man in her place.[10]

Yet there was undoubtedly a sense amongst high-powered women of this period, notably in the BBC and particularly in professions where they worked alongside men, that they were equals.[11] [12] Harold Nicolson in his 1932 novel, Public Places, portrayed the character of Jane Campbell (based on Hilda Matheson) in this light. 1 2 The fictional Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs was ‘a graduate of Lady Margaret Hall ... the modern woman, emancipated ... talking as man to man’.[13] The fact of being a pioneer meant that these women were often isolated and so ‘novelties’, but once the ‘old boys’ network had been breached, it appears that men were chivalrous and largely accepting of their new female colleagues. Kilroy raised the apposite point that her selfconfidence as an Oxbridge graduate meant that she took for granted the equality that her job at the Civil Service promised and that this may have influenced her reception and treatment.[14]

Kilroy had been to university yet reading the biographies and autobiographies of high-achieving women at this time one finds little similarity in their backgrounds or education.[15] Beatrice Gordon Holmes came from a lower-middle-class family, left school at 14 and started her working life as a ?1 a week typist. Alice Head’s first job also paid ?1 a week, although she had the advantage of attending North London Collegiate. Both women, however, had the good fortune to be supported by male bosses who recognised their abilities and gave them the all-important leg-up. But whereas Holmes was evidently tenacious, Head (as suggested by the title of her memoir It Could Never Have Happened) was not particularly go-getting. Alix Kilroy grew up in an environment of women’s suffrage and always expected to earn her living, the experience at Oxford opening her mind to the possibilities of a substantial profession.[16] Eileen Power, on the other hand, found her vocation while at Cambridge, a life-changing experience for a young woman whose childhood had been riven by scandal and tragedy.[17] The BBC’s highest-paid women had similarly diverse backgrounds, so what was their journey into the top echelons of broadcasting?

  • [1] Quoted in Michael Fogarty, A.J. Allen, Isobel Allen, Patricia Walters (1971) Women inTop Jobs: Four Studies in Achievement (London: Allen and Unwin) p. 166.
  • [2] Women in Top Jobs, p. 165.
  • [3] Carol Dyhouse (1995) No Distinction of Sex? Women in British Universities, 1870-1939(London: UCL Press) p. 150; Dorothy Evans (1934) Women and the Civil Service (London:Pitman) pp. 151-8. Dorothy Evans identified two female senior civil servants who were onsalaries in excess of ?1,300 in 1934. The Director of Women Establishments earned anundisclosed salary.
  • [4] Hilda Matheson letters, (hereafter HML), 12 January 1929.
  • [5] The Gazette (the journal of the John Lewis Partnership), 23 January 1932. Sangster andWood’s salary is undisclosed but Biscoe estimated a Managing Director in advertising earned?1,000 a year. Vyrnwy Biscoe (1932) 300 Careers for Women (London: Lovat Dickson) p. 18.
  • [6] Adrian Bingham (2004) Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain(Oxford: Clarendon Press) pp. 50-2, 63-8.
  • [7] The Star, 19 November 1937.
  • [8] Maxine Berg (1996) A Woman in History: Eileen Power 1889—1940 (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press) p. 181. This was her salary range in 1932.
  • [9] Berg, A Woman in History, p. 181.
  • [10] Alix Meynell (1984) Public Servant, Private Women: An Autobiography (London: VictorGollanz) p. 129; Beatrice Gordon Holmes (1944) In Love with Life: A Pioneer CareerWoman’s Story (London: Hollis & Carter) pp. 82-4. Holmes was debarred from membership of the London Stock Exchange, which refused entry to women until 1973.
  • [11] For a discussion on the experiences and attributes of elite women see Fogarty, Women inTop Jobs, pp. 14-16, 34, 41. Kanter also investigated the circumstances of women in top jobs.Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1977) Men and Women of the Corporation (New York: Basic Books)pp. 206-29.
  • [12] Nigel Nicolson (2004) Harold Nicolson: Diaries and Letters, 1907—1964 (London:Weidenfeld and Nicolson) p. 92.
  • [13] Harold Nicolson (1932) Public Faces (London: Penguin) p. 80.
  • [14] Meynell, Public Servant, p. 129.
  • [15] Virginia Nicholson provides a colourful overview of many successful women. VirginiaNicholson (2007) Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived without Men after the FirstWorld War (London: Viking).
  • [16] Meynell, Public Servant, pp. 76-8.
  • [17] Berg, A Woman in History, p. 55. Power’s father went to prison for fraud and her motherdied when she was fourteen.
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