Woman’s Hour was launched 70 years ago – but the BBC almost got it totally wrong

Woman's Hour began 70 years ago today – with a male presenter. He's just how different the BBC made the show

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Seventy years ago, radio history was made. At 2pm on 7 October 1946, the very first Woman’s Hour was broadcast on the BBC Light Programme.

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Every weekday thereafter, the hour-long magazine featured musical requests, listeners’ questions, a serial and “talks by experts on keeping house and health, on children, on beauty care – in fact on everything concerned with your sort of problems in the home,” promised the announcer. “It’s your programme – designed for you.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0165mfd/player

However, this robust mother was to give Janet and John her undivided attention. The psychological ill-effects of maternal deprivation appalled postwar public opinion.

The highly influential psychiatrist John Bowlby studied severely traumatised children in wartime orphanages and hospitals, concluding that the lack of a constant mother figure in infancy was catastrophic for development.

Childcare experts extrapolated that mothers should dedicate themselves to their children or risk the production of a generation of juvenile delinquents. The working mother was therefore anathema: criminally negligent and selfish.

It all sounds as if the Woman’s Hour audience was settling in for a serene epoch of nuclear families and full-time motherhood. The reality was far more complicated.

Facing a postwar labour shortage of crisis proportions, Attlee’s Labour government urged single and older women back out to work and removed the marriage bar in many occupations.

Fewer children and increased life expectancy meant comparative freedom for women in the 1940s and 50s. A new career pattern emerged. Women worked until marriage, many until the first pregnancy, withdrew into mothering for a decade or so, returning to part-time work once the kiddies were older.

Ironically, women found much of this work in the blossoming bureaucracy of the welfare state, which along with the developing service sector produced acceptably feminine occupations. Most would be back in work by the age of 38.

Woman’s Hour addressed a female nation on the cusp of change and sorely underestimated its audience. Reception was lukewarm.

One Bridget Long, writing to The Daily Worker in 1946, expressed a widely felt complaint: “The programme is much too patronising. What women want is a programme to compensate us for being tied to our domestic chores, to help us keep in touch with the world outside, whether it’s books, films, politics or other countries.”

Helen Henderson from Edinburgh agreed: “Surely it’s not too much to ask that we may have our minds removed from the monotony of housekeeping by a programme which gives us a glimpse of a wider existence.”

The BBC’s own listener research found that the idea of a women’s magazine had wide appeal, but that Auntie had misjudged tone and content. Some found presenter Alan Ivimey stilted and facetious, and wanted him replaced with a woman.

The domestic-advice talks went down especially badly. “There were many strongly worded complaints that the advice given was stale and assumed ignorance and incompetence on the part of the housewife.”

A doctor’s talk on “How to Be a Happy Woman”, encouraging the letting go of “frustration”, nettled listeners. One housewife said, “I should like him to do a hard day’s housework – bending over a sink washing, then shopping and queuing – then see if his backache is only frustration and not due to hard work.”

The Listener Research Department was sombre. “There was a good deal of unfavourable comment on the programme as a whole from women who felt that not only were the talks too elementary, but the approach of the speakers was in many cases offensively patronising.”

Citizen housewives were not be hectored by professional men or bossy matrons. “There was a feeling among many listeners that they were being patronised by the BBC and that both the material and the style of presentation appeared to be directed at adolescents, not grown women.”

The BBC learnt its lesson. Woman’s Hour lost its superiority complex long ago and is now a beloved institution. 

Amanda Vickery is professor of early modern history at Queen Mary, University of London

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Woman’s Hour is on Monday-Friday at 10am on Radio 4, Weekend Woman’s Hour airs on Saturdays at 4pm on Radio 4