jenni murray of woman's hour on the show's importance

As Woman’s Hour celebrates its 70th birthday, presenter Jenni Murray reflects on why the BBC Radio 4 show is as important now as it was then.

by Jenni Murray
12 January 2017, 8:53am

I wish I had a pound for every time I've been asked, "Why does it have to be called Woman's Hour? It sounds so old fashioned." I have a slightly flippant answer and a very serious one. Serious first. For 70 years it has been a trusted and beloved source of comfort and vital information for women that can't be found anywhere else in broadcasting, whether it's about health, home, or the complex politics of feminism. It's a space where women's interests - broad as they are - concerns and amusements are aired and where women's achievements are promoted. I've been around long enough to know how neglected women's talents and expertise have been and still are across the media. It's as vital a resource for girls and women of every age today as it was in 1946.

In a slightly less earnest tone, I respond that it has to be called Woman's Hour in order to keep the men intrigued. That is, though, not an entirely flippant point. From the programme's birth on the 7th October 1946, 30% of the audience was male. Currently, some 40% of the four million regular listeners are men and it's one of the most reassuring statistics imaginable.

It means significant numbers of men are keen to have a better understanding of the pay gap, of everyday sexism and the ways in which men and women are trying to grapple with their working and family lives. Most touchingly, I have received dozens of letters and emails from men thanking me for discussions about prostate or testicular cancer - subjects that have not been covered in other areas of popular culture. Then there've been the communications saying thank you for talking about breast cancer or even urinary incontinence and infections "because it's made me understand so much better what my wife or partner is going through and given me an idea of how I can help her."

There's no doubt that when the programme was proposed in 1946 and a man, Alan Ivimey, was chosen as the presenter, it was designed to cater for the women who'd been forced out of war work and back to the kitchen in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Ivimey, by the way, lasted only six months. There was a flood of complaints from female listeners, saying they found him patronising, and making it quite clear they would prefer to hear a woman's voice coming out of their wireless.

There was plenty of advice on 'How to put your best face forward', generally involving the absolute necessity of welcoming home a husband after his long hard working day, wearing a pretty dress and with hair and make-up sorted to perfection. There were tips on how to knit your own stair carpet, get rid of the bugs that lurk in your dish cloth and how best to make use of your black-out curtains.

One reviewer accused the programme of being "Almost laughably obsessed with domestic detail." Another, though, described it as "dangerously frank and radical." This, no doubt, came as a result of regular items on 'My Job', as women described the work they had found outside the home, or the discussions on the post war Equal Pay Talks. The editors were warned they must not show bias on the question of Equal Pay. The record shows the programme appeared generally in favour. How could a programme called Woman's Hour not think Equal Pay was a jolly good idea? (And still does!)

Woman's Hour was way ahead of its time when it came to discussing the more intimate and then unspoken aspects of health. In the days when the word 'breast' was never spoken in public and 'cancer' was only muttered behind a protective hand and generally referred to as 'the C word', Woman's Hour used the correct terminology and even risked censure from the suits 'on high'.

When Dr Josephine Barnes did a series of talks on the menopause in 1948, a memo from the station controller read, "We do not wish to hear about hot flushes and diseases of the ovaries at two o'clock in the afternoon - and the women in my office agree." The archive of letters from listeners suggests otherwise. Women were delighted to have frank information and the editors have never feared being open - as true today as in the past. No-one really wants to talk about urinary incontinence, labial surgery or why women tend to fart more as they get older, but, hey, someone has to do it and these matters generally fall within Woman's Hour's remit.

The programme has survived for as long as it has because it has always reflected the massive debates that have been the feature of women's lives in what I call the genderquake which has categorised the latter part of the 20th century.

Every woman of significance who had an important contribution to make has shared her thinking, had it challenged and told the stories of her life. Nancy Astor was the first woman to take her seat in the House of Parliament. She was preceded by the Irish politician, Constance Markiewicz, but she, as a member of Sinn Fein and active participant in Ireland's Easter Rising, never took on the job of MP. Astor explained on Woman's Hour how unwelcome she had felt among the ranks of men on the green benches. She decided to concentrate her efforts on matters that had not been much considered before - women and children.

Every significant female politician or cultural thinker of the past 70 years has appeared on Woman's Hour. In the early 70s Germaine Greer expounded her theory of The Female Eunuch, arguing we were debilitated by the demands of the patriarchy. She laid to rest the idea that bras were burned as the Women's Liberation Movement began - rightly blaming a hostile media (often still dismissive of women's political anger) for simply making up a silly story. High heeled shoes were burned, but never bras.

Barbara Castle, Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher - the prominent political women of the past - all laid out their policies on Woman's Hour. Barbara Castle spoke about her days as a young MP when businesses in her constituency proudly showed her their pay scales, which began with managerial, then skilled, then unskilled and, at the bottom, women. It would inspire her to work in the 70s for an equal pay and a sex discrimination act. Equal Pay, and the need for companies to conduct pay audits so that everyone, male or female, knows what everyone else is getting is still a crucial political argument - now expounded by women such as Harriet Harman, who's done so much to put equal rights on the statute book.

Castle also pushed hard for child benefit, recognising that it was generally women who had to buy what their children needed, but that some male breadwinners failed to come up with the goods. She saw child benefit as a way of transferring money from "the wallet to the purse".

She was a feminist to her boots, but also pragmatic about what could be achieved and how to achieve it. During the 'post-feminist' era of the 80s and 90s, the most misnamed period of history, when the predominant argument was 'Oh, come on girls, why complain when you have it all?' I remember Barbara saying to me, "You know, Jenni, sometimes I think you young feminists go too far. I don't care if they call me chairwoman, chairman, chairperson or chair as long as I'm in the chair."

Throughout Woman's Hour's history we have made small steps forward and back and then forward again. So, where are we now? We have the highest number of women in parliament than ever before, but still nowhere near the 50/50 representation that would be the ideal. Feminism is no longer considered a dirty word and increasing numbers of young women are ready to embrace it and openly declare their experience of Everyday Sexism. Social media has enabled the word to spread and the new generation of politicians such as Jess Philips, Maria Miller and Stella Creasy are determined to take on the dangerously threatening trolls.

We have a second female Prime Minister in Theresa May, Germany has Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde heads the International Monetary Fund. But now is not the time to sit back and assume the tide is turning in women's favour.

When the post of Secretary General became free at the United Nations this year it was widely believed it would go to a woman. Ban Ki Moon, who was retiring from the job, said it was about time. Seven of the 13 candidates were well qualified women. It went to a man. And the UN created an international scandal by naming Wonder Woman - a cartoon character with large breasts and an improbably narrow waist - as an ambassador for gender equality.

Meanwhile Hillary Clinton, described by Barack Obama as the most qualified candidate for president of the United States for more than 20 years, tried in vain to grapple with the most anti-female political campaign I can ever recall.

I interviewed her on Woman's Hour two years ago and we recalled her speech at the United Nations' Women's Conference in Beijing when she became the first person to stand on an international platform and say "women's rights are human rights." She was generous about Monica Lewinsky's youth and inexperience at the time of her affair with Bill Clinton. When I asked her why she stayed with a man who had humiliated her so many times she said, "When we met as students we started a conversation. We're still having that conversation." It was the best definition of a solid marriage, prepared to forgive sexual peccadillos to retain a lifelong friendship, I had ever heard. It was obvious to me that, as Secretary of State, she has been an accomplished diplomat and women's rights have always been at the forefront of her thinking.

I do believe we have made great progress in the past 70 years. Equality laws are in place, we have a generation of young men who, on the whole, accept that housework and childcare are not women's work, but are to be shared between partners. But we must never become complacent.

25-years-ago Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale - a dystopian novel where all women's rights are removed by an extreme right wing Christian movement. Interesting, I thought, but it could never happen. But it did, in Afghanistan and now, across the Middle East and in parts of Africa, the treatment of women is beyond medieval. We must remain vigilant. Rights, once won, can be taken away.


Text Jenni Murray

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