I wish I were out of a job

There is still a need for Woman's Hour while the other 23 hours of the day ignore women's issues, its presenter, Jenni Murray, tells Vincent Graff
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The Independent Online

Listening to Jenni Murray talking about marriage is rather like hearing Kate Moss contemplating a deep-fried Mars bar. The Woman's Hour presenter can - if she strains her empathic skills to their limit - just about conceive of how some people may get something out of the experience, but the idea leaves her feeling more than a little bilious. She is not religious. She "hated" wedding ceremonies of friends and relatives at which, in her eyes, women were being handed over like property from father to husband. It is an institution in which women are seen as "lesser", she says. "I am just uncomfortable with it."

She has lived with her partner, David, for 23 years, and they have had two children together. But David is not merely her partner any more. He is now her husband (though she does not use the word). The couple got married last year.

Reluctantly. "Inheritance tax, dear," she explains. "When the financial adviser tells you how much your kids are going to lose if you are not married, you go ahead and do it." So she swallowed her pride, listened to the reassurance of her friends - "Everyone said: 'Oh come on, Jenni, it's changed now: you can keep your own name; you don't have to promise to obey; all of that stuff's gone'" - and went ahead with a register-office ceremony. It is still not clear whether she thinks she did the right thing.

"What really angered me when I went to do it was that when you fill out the marriage certificate, they ask for your father's name and occupation. And I said: 'Well, what about our mothers?' and they replied, 'Oh, we don't need that information' - which completely confirmed every prejudice I had ever had that it is an institution that writes women out of history."

To Murray, the issue is simple: feminism and marriage are in conflict. But there are almost as many definitions of feminism as there are men and women who rally to its cause (or attack it). This morning, she will be chairing a live debate - "What Does Feminism Mean to You?" - from the Women's Library in London.

But is it right to describe her programme as feminist? Woman's Hour was launched 57 years ago today, as a "daily programme of music, advice and entertainment for the home". An early item - and this was before the birth of satire, remember - advised housewives how to knit their own stair carpet; but a year into its life it was discussing the menopause, a subject considered shocking at the time.

"It depends what we mean by 'feminist'," says Murray, who first attached the word to herself when, as a young woman less than 30 years ago, she was denied a mortgage without the signature of a husband or father. "I always define feminism in a very straightforward manner: that we want to promote women's interests - in which case, in that very strict definition of the word, yes, Woman's Hour is feminist. But those interests are hugely wide-ranging." Discussions of domestic violence and hormone replacement therapy sit alongside recipes for risotto.

Murray brushes aside criticisms of this curious mix. Woman's Hour has faced such complaints from the very first programme, she says. "One reviewer called it 'dangerously radical' because they had been talking about equal pay and another reviewer said it was 'laughably obsessed with domestic detail... a kind of aural WI'."

It is the first claim - that the mumsy stuff is a "front" for an anti-establishment, pro-left agenda - that is politically dangerous, particularly at a time that the BBC is under threat from a Government and a right-wing press desperate to detect bias wherever it can.

The Daily Telegraph's Beebwatch column, set up by the paper to monitor the corporation, was at its most hilarious recently when it attacked what it called "the BBC's lack of respect for the Catholic church", a symptom of which it says it detected in the corporation's "frequent references to the Pope's frailty". But that same Beebwatch column also detected anti-Catholic bias on Woman's Hour and the "supposedly impartial Jenni Murray".

Murray was debating celibacy in the Catholic Church, following the suicide of a priest who had fallen in love with a woman. At one point, the presenter dealt with the fact that former Anglicans with wives were allowed to serve in the priesthood, while those members of the clergy born into Catholicism had to lead a celibate life. She asked a spokesman for the Church: "How do you deal with that particular hypocrisy?" The Telegraph criticised Murray for not being "even-handed".

Murray stands firm. "I think hypocrisy is a perfectly good word, and the question was a perfectly good challenge." She adds: "It is not my job to support one side or the other in any political argument."

The problem is that the Telegraph and others in its camp piece together Murray's collected views and reckon they can fill in the gaps for themselves. When the Jenni jigsaw is complete, it is hardly likely to illustrate a Tory, they say. Which is fair enough - just as long as her views do not creep into her questioning. But Murray absolutely denies that Woman's Hour's feminism is a left-wing concept. "No, it is a human-rights concept. It has absolutely nothing to do with party politics." Yes, her panellists on today's programme include the writer Bea Campbell, who is very much left of centre, but she will be sitting alongside the former Tory MP Edwina Currie.

She has seen these attacks come, and she has seen them go. A decade ago, Tony Marlow, a Tory MP of the time, went as far as to table a motion in the House of Commons calling for her dismissal from Woman's Hour, after she had seemingly equated marriage with prostitution in an article for a women's magazine (in fact, Murray had been quoting the 18th-century feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft).

Marlow's motion described her as a "self-declared feminist with an unrepresentative lifestyle". Murray took great pleasure in a newspaper diarist's revelation a day or two later that Marlow's own lifestyle was not entirely representative either. He had nine children, five by his wife and four by his mistress, and divided his time between the two women.

But if that skirmish was won, what about the bigger battle? Will there come a time when women do not need their own programme, when the female perspective is adequately represented in the other 23 hours of the day? "Politics, and political broadcasting, and newspapers are still, on the whole, run with a male agenda," says Murray, pointing out that Woman's Hour was talking about the Taliban regime long before anyone else was paying attention to the human rights abuses in Afghanistan. "Obviously, in an ideal world, one would want to talk oneself out of a job, I suppose," says Murray. Pause. "In the long run."

The 'Woman's Hour' debate 'What Does Feminism Mean to You?' is at 10am today, on BBC Radio 4