"Miss Somerville and Miss Sprott: Separate but Equal? Women in the Early BBC"

Authors: Murphy, K.

Conference: Women's History Network 18th Annual Conference: Women, Gender and Political Spaces: Historical Perspectives

Dates: 11-13 September 2009


Founded in 1922, the early BBC was a dynamic place for women to work. With no history of male domination, it was a newly constructed institutional space where women found work in roles as varied as cloakroom attendants and cooks; typists and telephonists, drama producers and dance music hosts. It prided itself on being a modern organisation with perceived policies of equal pay and equal eligibility for posts and promotion. Prior to the Second World War, three women attained the status of department head. However, in many areas the BBC did conform to prevailing employment practices such as class-specific roles; occupational sex-typing and gender segregation. While these practices were not universally applied, senior appointments, high salaries and varied career paths were heavily weighted in favour of men. So how did women navigate fulfilling careers in an institution that exhibited a plethora of contradictions? In order to explore these broad themes, this paper will concentrate on the pre-war careers of two senior women, Miss Somerville and Miss Sprott. While Elise Sprott was decidedly single, Mary Somerville was married and had a child. Mary Somerville carved out a career in educational broadcasting, becoming de facto head of her department in 1929 and was, in 1939, the most senior woman in the BBC. Elise Sprott, who started as a secretary, dedicated her career to women’s issues: as a broadcaster, programme maker and press officer. She travelled the length and breadth of the UK promoting the BBC to women. This paper will consider how Somerville and Sprott created and negotiated their space within the BBC hierarchy. How did their experience differ from that of their male colleagues? And how typical were they of women in the BBC prior to 1939?

Source: Manual

Preferred by: Kate Murphy