[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 2 October 2006, 11:46 GMT 12:46 UK
Woman's Hour reaches 60 years
"How to hang your husband's suit" and "cooking with whalemeat". Which programme? Radio 4's Woman's Hour is celebrating its 60th birthday, writes Martha Kearney.

It's fair to say that the content of Woman's Hour has changed a little over the years.

It was first presented in 1946 by a man, Alan Ivieson at two o'clock in the afternoon - scheduled at a time when morning chores and the lunchtime washing up would be finished and the children wouldn't be home from school.

Martha Kearney
I think it's fair to assume that no programme of that title would be commissioned today
Martha Kearney

Early items included "cooking with whalemeat" (still a time of rationing), "I married a lion tamer" and my favourite, "how to hang your husband's suit". But some of the elements of the programme are the same today.

Cooking remains a staple and most of the country's top chefs have appeared including Gordon Ramsay, Angela Hartnett, Rick Stein and memorably the River Cafe duo who started a fire on the studio Baby Belling.

Fashion too is part of the modern mix. Jenni Murray chaired a heated debate on the thong and I have been coached on how to walk on four inch high cerise marabou trimmed mules live on air.

But Woman's Hour in the early days wasn't quite as cosy as you might think. When the word "vagina" was used in 1946 in an item about women's health, there was uproar and for decades the more decorous "birth canal" was used instead.


For all the mocking which goes on about the programme being obsessed with women's plumbing (yes, Andy Kershaw, I mean you), we are currently running some very moving listeners' stories about how Woman's Hour has changed their lives.

Many recount suffering in pain for years with conditions undiagnosed by GPs until they heard some advice on Woman's Hour.

Germaine Greer, undated pic.
Germaine Greer debated women's rights on the programme

Over the years the programme has been at the centre of debates about women's rights. I will always remember a programme of mine in which Julie Burchill let fly at Germaine Greer and we threw away the rest of the running order to let them fight it out.

A discussion in 1948 had a title which wouldn't be out of place today - "Is there a future for feminism? That was delivered by a well-known economist of the time, Honor Croome. She argued that women had won most of the battles - the right to education, to earn a living, own their own property but one big battle remained the right to equal pay for equal work.

Despite the Equal Pay Act in 1970, it remains one of the subjects we return to again and again as the gender pay gap stubbornly remains.

It's amazing to read the roll-call of women in politics who have appeared - Eleanor Roosevelt, Nancy Astor, Vera Brittain, Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair. Not to mention the men - Tony Blair, Michael Howard, Gordon Brown, David Cameron.

Women facing violence at the hands of a partner has also been a subject we've returned to again and again. However often you hear the statistic that two women a week are killed through domestic violence, it's still shocking.


I will always remember one woman coming onto the programme to describe how her husband, a doctor, had abused her for years and ended up nearly murdering her. Another listener told us about the horror of being stalked.

Women's Hour
Reading the letters on Women's Hour in 1960

The plight of women in other countries has increasingly been part of our agenda. I will always remember a trip to Afghanistan just after the fall of the Taleban in which we visited a prison where young women were still being held simply for being seen in public with a man who wasn't a family member.

Last Friday we talked to women there now who argued that the security situation has deteriorated and life is getting bad again for women.

So 60 years on is it right that Woman's Hour should still be broadcast on BBC radio? Is it relevant to the 21st century? I think it's fair to assume that no programme of that title would be commissioned today, yet Woman's Hour remains a successful part of the Radio 4 schedule and 40% of its audience are men.

Former Labour politician, Roy Hattersley, for instance, says it is the best magazine programme on the radio. Certainly I would hope that it remains an entertaining listen.

But its enduring success is because so many "wimmin's" issues have become mainstream issues for all of us - work/life balance, childcare, body image, fashion and cookery are things which interest women and men. And my husband is still waiting for me to learn how to hang his suit.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Women's Hour is an amazing programme. Always interesting and often eclectic. My education has definitely benefited from the hours of my childhood spent listening to it! Thank you.
Helen Q, London

Will male listeners have to wait another five years to join in the celebrations?
Gary Williams, Weston-super-Mare

I grew up listening to Woman's Hour in the 60s and now, with the aid of the internet, it is a great pleasure to be able to listen to it again. There is nothing to match it in the States and it is wonderful to listen to a programme, aimed at women, that neither patronises nor demeans us.
Heather, LA USA

I remember listening to Woman's Hour when very young. My mother would stoke the fire up so we would enjoy a good blaze, then we would curl up and listen to the radio. I remember these times with affection, and believe Woman's Hour is part of our culture. It should definitely continue, I listen to it even now when time permits, and still find it informative.
Amber Taylor, West Midlands

I used to listen to Women's Hour on Monday mornings driving (200 miles!) to work. After a while I gave up as most of the articles were middle-class navel-gazing and metropolis-centric. It was almost as if any "poor" woman who wasn't in one of the more pointless forms of employment e.g. law, fashion, publishing, journalism etc.,. was beneath this elitist celebration and only the angst and struggle of the chattering classes was seen as worth airing.
Paul O'Brien, Plymouth

Your e-mail address
Town/city and country
Your comment

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific