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Ella Fitzgerald, ‘Women’s Hour’

Mrs Ella Fitzgerald’s arrival at Savoy Hill on 7 April 1923 coincided with the creation of a new programme, Women’s Hour. The idea of Cecil Lewis, the BBC’s Assistant Director of Talks, it was to be one of a trilogy of programmes, Children’s Hour, Women’s Hour and Men’s Hour, that would be broadcast from 1 May to tie in with the opening of the eagerly awaited new studios.27 While Children’s Hour was already established, the distinct programmes for women and men were to carry items of particular relevance to these groups. Men’s Talks (as the London programme was ultimately called) was short lived. Broadcast late at night, by October 1923 it had disappeared from the schedules, its diet of motoring, sport and whimsy deemed unsuccessful. Women’s Hour as a distinct entity was also brief, but importantly it developed a style of women’s programming that would continue throughout the interwar years.

Fitzgerald was one of the first women to be recruited directly to the BBC’s salaried staff, indicating her status as a programme maker. Little is known about her life prior to the BBC apart from her place of birth, Dutch Guinea, and that she had worked in Fleet Street, at one time as a film critic for the Daily Sketch.28 She was 35 when she arrived at Savoy Hill and it is likely that her maturity, coupled with her excellent contacts, made her a good choice to oversee Women’s Hour, with its daily requirements for two talks, six days a week. Initially, Fitzgerald was to be Central Organiser for both Women’s Hour and Children’s Hour and each provincial

Bailey (2009) ‘The Angel in the Ether: Early Radio and the Construction of the Household’ in Narrating Media History, ed. Michael Bailey (London: Routledge) pp. 52-65.

  • 24 For a discussion on women and leisure see Claire Langhamer (2000) Women’s Leisure in England 1920-1960 (Manchester: Manchester University Press).
  • 25 Bingham, Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press.
  • 26 Judy Giles (2004) The Parlour and the Suburb: Domestic Identities, Class, Femininity and Modernity (Oxford: Berg) pp. 47-55.
  • 27 BBC/WAC:CO9: BBCo Station Directors Meeting, 18 April 1923.
  • 28 Ariel, April 1936, October 1937.

station (of which there were now five), was instructed to appoint a Woman Assistant to supervise this output in their locality.[1] In November 1923, Fitzgerald was relieved of the responsibility for Children’s Hour by the appointment of Geraldine Elliot to that role. This meant that she was able to give her whole attention to Women’s Hour.

The first Women’s Hour was broadcast at 5.00 pm on 2 May 1923 when HRH Princess Alice, Duchess of Athlone delivered the inaugural talk on ‘The Adoption of Babies’. Also appearing on the programme was the famed couturier Lady Duff Gordon who spoke on ‘Fashions’. This mix of the worthy and light-hearted, of domesticity, social issues and escapism would provide the blueprint for the programme. Amongst the regular topics introduced by Fitzgerald were cookery, poultry keeping, nursery chats, beauty, careers and bridge. She herself gave two talks a week: ‘Ariel’s Society Gossip’ (presumably a round-up of society news) and ‘In and Out of the Shops’, a weekly update on what was worth buying, for which she used her lunch hour to gather material.[2] In order to stretch her programme budget Fitzgerald ‘shamelessly exploited’ former Fleet Street colleagues, several of whom came to the microphone ‘once or twice, without fees, just for the novel experience’. Amongst those she tempted to Savoy Hill were the literary critic and feature writer Edith Shackleton, her sister Norah Heald of the Daily Mail, and Miss Hogg, Woman’s Page Editor of the Evening Standard. Marion Cran, who gave her first gardening talk in August 1923, would become one of the first radio stars, as Chapter 8 will reveal.

The audience for the initial programmes would have been tiny, largely made up of women whose husbands were wireless enthusiasts.[3] The novelty of broadcasting, coupled with the small numbers of women listeners, would have meant that expediency was the main motivator for the choice of talks, Fitzgerald selecting subjects that she felt comfortable with and for which she could easily find speakers. Much echoed the standard women’s fare in newspapers, with which Fitzgerald was familiar, with a strong focus on the domestic but also the changing reality of women’s lives with talks on, for example, new technologies such as electricity and aluminium, new pursuits such as tennis and motoring and newly obtainable careers.[4] Reflecting on her time producing Women’s Hour, Fitzgerald was palpably proud that the MPs Nancy Astor, Margaret Wintringham and Ellen Wilkinson had graced the airwaves and talks on citizenship were also prominent.[2]

In December 1923 a change was introduced to the way Women’s Hour was run. A Women’s Advisory Committee (WAC) was established to offer guidance to the programme, one of a number of advisory committees established by the early BBC to enhance its credibility.[6] [7] Seven eminent individuals were invited to sit on the WAC, each signifying an area of women’s lives the BBC deemed important to reflect. These were Lady Denman (Chairman of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes), Margaret Bondfield (MP), Mrs H.B. Irving (the actress Dorothea Baird), Dr Elizabeth Sloan Chesser (physician), Mrs Violet Cambridge (Honorary Secretary of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association), Mrs Hardman Earle (Ministry of Food and Public Kitchens, First World War) and Evelyn Gates (Editor-in Chief, The Women’s Year Book).35 Within weeks of its first meeting two significant decisions were made; first to hold a poll of listeners’ views and second to abolish the Women’s Hour name.[8] [9]

The plebiscite was Fitzgerald’s suggestion. Two members of the WAC appeared on Women’s Hour on 2 February 1924 to establish at what time women could most easily listen and which subjects were preferred. Mrs Hardman Earle put forward the case for ‘practical talks on topics relating to the welfare of the home’; Miss Evelyn Gates supported the argument ‘that women looked to the wireless as a potential means of brightening their leisure hours’.3 7 Writing in Radio Times Fitzgerald described how the plebiscite had galvanised the listener, ‘Keep us out of the kitchen!’ and ‘Take us out of ourselves’ was the overwhelming response with 75 per cent of responses imploring the programme ‘to abandon at once and for ever’ all talks on domestic subjects.[10] ‘Is it to be wondered at then’ Fitzgerald explained, ‘that for “the cure of constipation” we substituted a tour of Constantinople, that talks on the English country-side replaced those on the stocking of the kitchen cupboard?’ As a result of the plebiscite domestic subjects were reduced from one-third to a quarter of the output, with a new time also agreed for the programme, 4.00 pm.[11]

Ironically, by the time Fitzgerald’s Radio Times article appeared in October 1924, Women’s Hour had ceased to exist. At the February meeting, the WAC had unanimously agreed to abolish the name. No reason was given as to why, but a distaste of special treatment for women was part of the ongoing feminist debate of the mid-1920s. Divergent views were expressed, for instance, by women’s groups such as the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC) and the Six Point Group, centring on whether women should seek first to identify themselves as citizens rather than as women.[12] The outcome was that, from 24 March 1924, Women’s Hour was no longer listed in the schedules. Instead, from 4.00 pm, ‘two talks of general interest but with particular appeal to women’ were interlarded with the afternoon concert.[11]

Despite the name being dropped, the WAC met twice more in April and December 1924, and continued to influence women’s programming. Amongst recommendations, for instance, were a series of talks on Psychology and on The Domestic Service Problem (both suggested by Sloan Chesser); higher profile career talks by experts in the field; a broader range of travel talks (which included a series on the Lake District by Elise Sprott) and talks on hobbies by which listeners could earn pin-money. Later programmes also included debates: ‘That Woman is Nearer Barbarism than Man’; ‘That the Advantages of Education Are Grossly Overrated’; ‘That the Eastern Woman Is More Successful in Married Life than her Western Sister’ amongst the topics covered. There were also interviews with ‘celebrities’ such as the film star Gladys Young, the novelists Rebecca West and Ruby Ayres and the suffragist leader, Millicent Garrett Fawcett and with ‘London characters’; a flower girl, a charwoman and a policewoman invited to talk about their lives. Much was innovative, pre-empting trends that would not be incorporated into general BBC programming for many years ahead.

There was no indication that the December meeting would be the last but in September 1925 a letter was sent to all WAC members informing them that, as only one women’s talk was now being given in the afternoon (rather than two), and as the title Women’s Hour no longer existed, the need for an advisory committee to meet regularly had disappeared.[14] It appears that by getting rid of the name, the commitment to women’s issues was gradually reduced.[15] Although Ella Fitzgerald’s responsibilities may have diminished, she continued to offer an array of female-related topics such as ‘Choosing a School’, ‘Psychology and the Shop Assistant’, ‘A Woman in the Wild—Tiger Shooting’ and ‘Holidays with a Car’, eschewing, as before, an overabundance of housecraft.[16] Two of her regular broadcasters became so popular their talks were published as books: My Part of the Country by ‘A Bonnet Laird’ and Mrs C. Romanne-James’s O Toyo Writes Home[17] Fitzgerald’s daytime listenership would have progressively increased during this time. By December 1926, the number of wireless licences holders in the UK had exceeded the two million mark.[18] Advances in technology, with improved reception and the use of loudspeakers rather than headphones, also meant that the experience of listening-in was becoming more palatable.[19] [20]

In November 1926, Fitzgerald’s three-and-a-half year association with talks for women came to an abrupt end when she was transferred to the new position of Assistant on World Radio, the foreign-programme supplement to Radio Times.4 The move came within weeks of Hilda Matheson’s arrival at the BBC who, in January 1927, began her tenure as Director of

Talks. Laying out her initial plans for the new department, Matheson made specific reference to the afternoon talks for women which she planned to bring more in line with evening talks, giving them an elevated status.[21] [22] One of Matheson’s first tasks was to replace Fitzgerald, and Elise Sprott, an established member of the Department, assumed the role.

  • [1] In April 1923 these were Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Cardiff and Glasgow.Bournemouth and Aberdeen were added later, in October that year.
  • [2] Prospero, June 1969.
  • [3] Shaun Moores, (1988) ‘“The Box on the Dresser”: Memories of Early Radio andEveryday Life’, Media, Culture and Society 10(1), 23-39. By the close of 1923, 600,000licences had been issued. Pegg, Broadcasting and Society, p. 7. A letter to Margaret Bondfieldstated that she would be speaking to ‘many thousands’ of listeners, BBC/WAC: MargaretBondfield Talks:1, Fitzgerald to Bondfield, 19 July 1924.
  • [4] In his study of women’s interests in the popular press Adrian Bingham included housewifery, motherhood, consumer items, citizenship, fashion and ‘modernity’ which embracednew technologies as well as expanded employment opportunities, sport and women‘pioneers’. Bingham, Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press.
  • [5] Prospero, June 1969.
  • [6] BBC/WAC:R16/219:Women’s Advisory Committee. For more on Advisory Committeessee Asa Briggs (1961) The Birth of Broadcasting: The History of Broadcasting in the UnitedKingdom Vol. 1 (London: Oxford University Press) pp. 240-50.
  • [7] Margaret Bondfield was unable to attend meetings and resigned in February 1924. MrsIrving replaced Lilian Braithwaite who was also unable to attend.
  • [8] WAC Minutes, 18 January 1924, 25 January 1924.
  • [9] Radio Times, 17 October 1924, article written by Fitzgerald.
  • [10] Fitzgerald’s interpretation of the figures was inaccurate. Out of the 326 letters received,187 had voted against domestic topics, 57 per cent. WAC Minutes, 20 February 1924.
  • [11] WAC Minutes, 30 April 1924.
  • [12] See, for example, Cheryl Law (1997) Suffrage and Power: The Women’s Movement 19181928 (London: I.B. Tauris) pp. 171-7; Olive Banks (1993) The Politics of British Feminism,1918-1970 (Aldershot: Edward Elgar) pp. 76-7, 135-6.
  • [13] WAC Minutes, 30 April 1924.
  • [14] WAC, Letter to members of the Committee, 30 September 1925.
  • [15] In 1990, Woman’s Hour campaigned to save its name for just this reason. Sally Feldman‘Twin Peaks: The Staying Power of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour’ in Caroline Mitchell ed.(2000) Women in Radio: Airing Differences (London: Routledge) pp. 64-7.
  • [16] Radio Times, 18 May 1925, 20 September 1925, 19 February 1926, 8 June 1926.
  • [17] A. Bonnet Laird (1925) My Part of the Country (London: Herbert Jenkins) andC. Romanne-James (1926) O Toyo Writes Home (London: Herbert Jenkins).
  • [18] Pegg, Broadcasting and Society, p. 7.
  • [19] For a discussion on the development of wireless technology see Pegg, Broadcasting andSociety, pp. 36-40.
  • [20] Fitzgerald would go on to become Assistant Editor in 1928, retiring as Overseas PressOfficer in 1947.
  • [21] BBC/WAC:R13/419/1: Organisation of Talks Department, October 1926.
  • [22] Hilda Matheson Letters (hereafter HML), 11 June 1929.
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