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


The interwar years saw a small but increasing number of women attain elite positions as institutions, such as the Civil Service, were opened up and new business opportunities became within reach. The rise to executive positions, though, was still largely viewed as a novelty, as the tantalising newspaper stories of astonishing jobs and remarkable salaries attest. Mary Somerville, Hilda Matheson, Isa Benzie and Mary Adams were part of this much scrutinised band of pioneers. The four women had highly individualistic careers, nothing comparable to their positions existed outside the Corporation and within the BBC they also held unique roles.

There were some similarities between them, most obviously their graduate status. To have gained a place at Oxford or Cambridge was an immense achievement for a young woman at this time and imbued them with a confidence in their abilities that was evident at the BBC. Another similarity was their urbanity; they were modern-minded women who took the successes of feminism in their stride. A further trait they shared, and which was evident in other high-achieving women of the period, was their focus on the task in hand rather than seeing it as a stepping stone to something bigger. They were not part of the race-to-the-top mentality that characterised the careers of many professional men and which was especially prevalent at the young BBC. Because the women were not seen as a threat, it was easier for them to form positive relationships with those around them. All four women also held roles that were not perceived as feminine. Talks, foreign relations, science and television were areas of the BBC that, in future years, would be the domain of men. Schools management, although later feminised, was not viewed as such at this time.

Adams, Somerville and Matheson had rich hinterlands and were part of the cultural elite. They started their BBC careers in salaried roles, their intellectualism setting them apart from many of their male colleagues. Matheson, in particular, was unique in being the only woman who was head-hunted by Reith for an executive role. Benzie’s trajectory was very different, the only one of the four who started at the BBC in a waged secretarial post. Obviously bright and ambitious, she was soon promoted, assuming the position of Foreign Director because she was perceived to be the natural successor. Somerville, too, grew into her role as Director, School Broadcasting. All four women were the right people, in the right place, at the right time. The pragmatic, and open-minded, BBC could see no reason to look elsewhere.

By 1939, Somerville was the only female Director still in post. Benzie was the last BBC woman to be appointed to a director-level position in the interwar years, after 1933, no further woman gained this status. In her biography of Eileen Power, Maxine Berg noted that the LSE, an institution which like the BBC took a progressive approach to the employment of women in the early years of the twentieth century, also experienced retrenchment.206 Berg cited the growth of institutional constraints, more rigid hierarchies, increased professionalisation and the trend towards departmentalisation as possible reasons; all developments which were visible in the interwar BBC. Power was Professor of Economic History, a brand new subject area. She had been pivotal to its development and, initially, it had provided fresh opportunities for women.2 07 Again, these were similar circumstances to the BBC. By the mid-1930s, the BBC had cultivated a sufficient number of home-grown male staff to supply most of its executive needs and when it was necessary or expedient to advertise jobs externally, it attracted a huge volume of interest from men.2 08 Somerville was the sole woman to survive as a Director, and ultimately as a Controller, into the 1940s and 1950s. Adams would also have a significant post-war career but by then the nature of the Corporation and its attitudes towards women would have considerably changed.

  • 206 Berg, A Woman in History, pp. 180, 258-9.
  • 207 Berg, p. 8, 12.
  • 208 Daily Express, 1 October 1936. ‘Yesterday was the last day for applications for the ?1,200 post of Talks Director at the BBC. Just over 1,000 people applied for it, among them several women. I think it unlikely that the post will be given to a woman’.
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