“Vigorous and various contributions”: Women’s Voices on the BBC, 1923-1939

Authors: Murphy, K.

Conference: The Radio Conference: A Transnational Forum

Dates: 9-12 July 2013


In the 1920s and 1930s, European networks such as Radio Luxembourg, Radio Normandie and Radio Budapest had high-profile female announcers, yet the BBC was reluctant to follow suit and there was a constant debate about both the pitch of a woman’s voice and her authority. In 1933, an experiment with a female announcer, Sheila Borrett, was cut short after three months following thousands of complaints, largely from women listeners although a live commentary in 1939 from Olga Collett, the BBC’s sole female outside commentator, gained national acclaim. This paper will consider the conditions that made women’s voices acceptable? Why, and when, was opposition expressed? And how were the actress, soprano and comedienne viewed?

Significantly in ‘Talks’, which were a mainstay of the BBC in the period, as today, male broadcasters predominated, yet there was scope for ‘expert’ women to speak on a variety of topics. The physiologist Professor Winifred Cullis, the novelist Vita Sackville-West, the politician Margaret Bondfield and the social reformer Dame Henrietta Barnett were amongst the scores of women who were invited to give talks, many at the behest of Hilda Matheson, Director of Talks 1927-1932. Furthermore the BBC’s daytime talks, aimed at a female audience, were dominated by female broadcasters whether discussing domesticity or the broader remit of escapist subjects, including experiences abroad.

Source: Manual

Preferred by: Kate Murphy