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


The BBC broadcast a wealth of talks aimed at its women listeners during the interwar years. That these were produced by women is not a surprise. The journalists who worked on the women’s pages of newspapers and as the editorial staff of women’s magazines were nearly always female, perceived to be more closely attune to their readership and to the woman’s point of view. But whereas women journalists were usually cogs within a much larger team, those who produced women’s broadcasts at the BBC generally worked alone and with a high degree of autonomy. This was because daytime talks aimed at female listeners were not a high priority for the BBC so, provided they did not stray into areas of controversy, the women who produced this output tended to be spared intense managerial scrutiny. Ella Fitzgerald, Elise Sprott, Margery Wace and Janet Quigley were dedicated to producing programmes they believed would enhance women’s lives: whether a talk on the uses of electricity, a sponge pudding recipe, an exploration of infant health or the revelations of a shop girl’s life.

Although seldom light-hearted, talks for women fitted the Reithian principles of the BBC: to inform, educate and entertain. They addressed their daytime audience essentially as homemakers and mothers, offering insights on health, diet and infant care, but also providing stimulation and escape. As Hilda Matheson noted, radio offered women ‘a preparatory course to help them to catch up, to feel less at a disadvantage, to keep abreast of wider interests’.[1] In her role as Talks Director, Matheson brought a greater professionalism and consistency to women’s programmes, introducing coherent series and a more regular timeframe. She replaced Fitzgerald’s often exuberant and somewhat ad hoc approach with a more ‘highbrow’ vision; a determination to bring to the female daytime audience the best and most up-to-date in expert opinion. While Matheson’s particular focus was citizenship, Sprott championed the domestic and this continued to be the main thrust of women’s talks during the remainder of the interwar years. Wace and Quigley brought heightened rigour and professionalism and a closer engagement with the housewife, who herself began to appear on air.

The 16 years from 1923 to 1939 were years of rapid change for women in Britain. For the BBC, the sense of awe at the burgeoning possibilities for women at the beginning of the 1920s became, by the decade’s end, an urgency to inform them of their new obligations as voters and citizens. The early 1930s saw a heightened awareness of women’s role in making-ends-meet which had settled, by the mid-1930s, into a lighter, more reflective mood before gearing up at the end of the decade to the new realities of war. The BBC’s women’s programmes were not about radically altering women’s lives. They rarely questioned women’s place in the home which was accepted as the norm. Neither Fitzgerald, Sprott, Wace or Quigley exhibited overtly feminist tendencies. They were realists with a commitment to what they believed would improve women’s lives. The output entwined the safe and old-fashioned with the modern and style-setting and unquestionably introduced new ideas, new practices and new experiences into the home. From within the confines of their kitchen or living room, women were able to get the latest expert advice on childcare, to travel to distant lands, to learn about the lives of others, to hear for themselves the opinions of female MPs, scientists and academics. Chapter 8 now moves on to the women who entered the nation’s homes as they came before the microphone, as broadcasters, commentators and announcers.

  • [1] Matheson, Broadcasting, pp. 189-90.
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