We need more female role models says Woman’s Hour host Jenni Murray
- Credit: Archant
The fight for equality has come a long way in a relatively short time says Woman’s Hour presenter Dame Jenni Murray, but some things never change. She talks to entertainment writer Wayne Savage about pay disparity at the BBC, Doctor Who and the resurgence of feminism.
When Jenni first read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, now an acclaimed TV series, she found the premise interesting but never imagined it could happen.
“Then of course it did. We saw in Afghanistan women not allowed out in the street alone, not allowed to work, when the Taliban took over... women are treated in a way that’s beyond medieval,” she says.
“Margaret Atwood wasn’t wrong when she said this is what could happen if we don’t stay on top of that. That’s what the younger generation are beginning to realise. You can make advances but they can be taken away if you are not constantly vigilant.”
Next year marks the centenary of women winning the right to vote; although most had to wait another decade. An enormous amount has been achieved so far but things never improve quickly enough says the journalist and broadcaster.
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“Jane Garvey said on Woman’s Hour the other day ‘we’re going to be talking about equal pay this morning, just as we’ve been doing since 1946’. I think the reason there’s been a real resurgence in feminist groups is for a long time anybody who called herself a feminist - people used to call it the F word and say ‘oh God, all these women what do they want?’ and - were put down.
“Men saw there wouldn’t be people who’d be willing to look after them as they’d been before. It’s not surprising there was all that anger when feminism really started to gain hold - ‘she won’t wear make-up, she’ll go round in dungarees’ all that nonsense my generation of feminists had to put up.
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“Then we raised the next generation and it’s them who have picked up from their mothers and, hopefully their fathers, what the feminist aim was all about. They’ve come into adulthood thinking ‘the ideas are all great but it’s not all in place’. This younger generation is not ashamed to say ‘I’m a feminist. Don’t tear me apart for it’.”
I mention my disappointment at the furore surrounding Broadchurch actor Jodie’s Whittaker’s casting as Doctor Who; especially her predecessor Peter Davison’s suggestion young male fans might struggle to identify with a female lead.
“As if young boys don’t have enough role models when you look at all the super heroes, there’s only one super heroine isn’t there? Wonder Woman; and ‘will she be able to park the Tardis?,” says Jenni, adding there are still a “load of old blokes” who look at the appointment and are frightened by how the world’s changing.
She thinks there’s a real shift in attitudes among younger men because of the feminist movement; they’re growing up with women just as likely to be lawyers, vets and doctors.
“But they all need to know how much of a struggle it’s been for women to get there and it’s still a struggle. Look at the BBC equal pay ding-dong that’s going on. There are some alarming disparities. Even though I was #notonthelist so I’m not one of the highest-paid women in the BBC,” she laughs, “What I’m delighted about is it all came out. What we’ve done in this country for far too long is ‘oh we don’t talk about how much we earn’.”
Men have looked at those similar to themselves thinking “he’ll have a wife and kids to bring up so he should earn more” without looking at the women and thinking “she’s going to have a husband and family to bring up and needs to earn independently whatever a man doing the same job is earning”.
“What the BBC has done – has been required to do it should be said, I’m not so sure they would have done it voluntarily – is put it all out there so we can say ‘look, we’re not just talking high-profile women we’re talking about women across the board, in the BBC and everywhere else’. This stuff has to be out there so we can address this terrible inequality.”
Female achievements through time was the subject of her 2016 book A History of Britain in 21 Women, in which she highlights the women who have inspired her. It’ll form the basis of her Audience With at Colchester’s Mercury Theatre tonight; where she’ll also talk about her life and career, including BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, which she’s presented for 30 years.
“The first day I presented Woman’s Hour I could not believe my luck because I’d been listening to it virtually since I was born. My mother used to listen to it when she fed me at 2pm so it was a constant thing in my life.... it’s got such a wide remit no-one could possibly be bored for one second.”
The idea for the book came to her a couple of years ago when she got cross over the dropping of feminism from A-level politics.
“Oh we’ll just have a little bit about the suffragettes because they were a ‘pressure group’ - a huge number of women fought like crazy to win the vote were described as a pressure group and that made me furious.”
Jenni recalls her son coming home some years ago and voicing his surprise that his 20th-Century British history book barely mentioned the suffragettes.
“I think it was at that point I really started to think ‘my goodness, do we need to do something about women’s history so young people are informed?’. You get all kinds of silly nonsense, like Steve Biddulph’s book about bringing up boys where he said ‘it’s an anti-male age and we have to bear in mind it was men who designed all the buildings, composed all the music, made the trains run’.
“I read that comment and thought ‘what absolute rubbish’. Women have been doing all kinds of things with no assistance and no support for years. Look at Ada Lovelace. She was a brilliant mathematician, she also inherited some of her dad, Lord Byron’s, poetic sense and worked on the very earliest computer. We need these people out there as role models.”
The idea behind the book was to highlight a range of things women have been brilliant at despite for so many years people saying “huh, you’re a woman, you can’t do that.
“I wanted a playwright so Aphra Behn is in there,” says Jenni, off to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for the umpteenth time. This time it’s for work, with some of the cast popping by Woman’s Hour later in the week.
“I wanted a composer so Ethel Smyth is there, I wanted the first politicians to get any access to political power so Constance Markievicz is there; she was the first woman elected to the British parliament although she never took up her seat because of her connections with Sinn Fein.
“I wanted an artist, so of course Gwen John is in there; she was always in the shadow of her brother Augustus but she was actually a much better painter than he was. I couldn’t do it without Margaret Thatcher being in there, the first female prime minister. Mary Quant who revolutionised what women were allowed to wear when I was growing up in the 1960s... and I’m sorry to Colchester but Boadicea is in there.”
Some may question Jenni’s feminist credentials given her Sunday Times piece in March, which suggested it takes more than a sex change and make-up for somebody who has lived as a man, with all the privilege that entails, to really lay claim to womanhood.
Appearing under the, perhaps unhelpful, heading “Be trans, be proud — but don’t call yourself a ‘real woman’”, her comments have been criticised as hurtful and reductive by equality campaigners; with the BBC reminding her to remain impartial on controversial topics.
The broadcaster - who made it clear in the same article she wasn’t transphobic or anti-trans - said she had a perfect right to write what she did.
“It’s an issue that needs to be discussed when you’re talking about things where a group of people are saying ‘let’s not call it breast-feeding any more, let’s call it chest feeding’ and ‘I’ve had transition surgery so I’m now a woman’.
“An awful lot of women are saying ‘no, hang on a minute, you haven’t gone through all of the things we’ve gone through as girls and women. We absolutely respect you and your choice to make the transition but please respect us as well and understand where there may be sensitivity about this’.”
Jenni says people can still respect each other even if they disagree.
“Let’s open it to debate. What I really dislike about it is the idea that debate should be shut down.”