`Woman's Hour' will be 50 tomorrow, and really doesn't mind who knows it

It has survived liberation, post-feminism and a morning slot. Emma Daly pays tribute
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It Was invented by a man, to encourage women to rebuild home life after the Second World War - not a long-term success, given that 52 per cent of mothers with children under five now go out to work. But 50 years on, Woman's Hour, which celebrates its golden anniversary tomorrow, still thrives, providing a balanced diet of information, entertainment, gossip and the daily serial.

You might expect the programme's image to be staid and mumsy, but its most vociferous critics portray the Nineties version as "Wimmin's Hour", militantly feminist and disdainful of the wholesome chutney recipes with which it began.

That, its editors say, is to misunderstand both today's programme and its roots - though they do acknowledge having made the Hour "more consciously for women". Last week's edition included an item on preserves, accompanied by the thesis that the pickle is political - that without the ability to preserve and store food, there could have been no empires.

Woman's Hour, says Sally Feldman, who edits the programme with Clare Selerie, has consistently tackled controversial issues such as the menopause, homosexuality and psychotherapy. "All these things were early firsts,'' she says. But since such pioneering programmes helped to re-draw the social landscape, do we still need Woman's Hour in a country routinely described as "post-feminist Britain"?

"I'm not sure that I accept that term - I don't see women running many boards,'' Ms Feldman replies.

"We still are earning only 70 per cent of what men earn if we're lucky and not breaking through the glass ceiling."

It does seem that much of Britain moved from pre-feminism straight to post-feminism; but even if and when Britain does achieve equality of opportunity, the programme will still, she says, have reason to be there. "We hope that one day we won't need Woman's Hour, but we would still want to celebrate women's experiences."

That is the strength of the programme, which attracts more than 600,000 listeners a day, a third of them men. Items address either issues of specific interest to women - particulary over health - or report more general interest stories with some female perspective.

"It becomes more and more important to carve out a unique niche,'' Ms Feldman says, "because there are other discussion programmes, there are other consumer programmes." The Woman's Hour name and history, which tempts guests to appear, are its main assets.

It was conceived by a man, Norman Collins, then controller of the Light Programme, and first presented by another, Alan Ivieson. At present, however, although men do work for it, all those who make the programme are women, as are most of those heard on air, because a deliberate effort is made to get female experts or representatives.

And "we would favour women novelists and women celebrities", Ms Feldman adds - although last week Anna Karenina came to her untimely end in the daily serial.

Such a policy of positive discrimination makes the critics hot under the collar, but in fact the show simply provides some balance in a world where the Sun flaunts Page 3 and the BBC, for all its high-profile female presenters, is firmly run by men.

Woman's Hour, Ms Feldman says, "is addressing something that is hugely underestimated out there: women and their confidence, and something that certainly hasn't been achieved is 50-50 confidence".

This week the programme will broadcast a selection of calls from viewers, including a woman inspired to go back to school by an item on a postman's wife taking an O-level. The listener, who is over 60, now funds her backpacking trips by working as a supply teacher.

For the 50th-birthday celebrations, the programme asked listeners to nominate their favourite men, and to paint a dinner plate for the woman they would most like to invite to a dinner party.

The list of men includes Eric Cantona (as philosopher), Sir David Steel (for instigating the abortion laws) and a lot of beefcake. "Sean Bean - he really did get a lot of nominations, and they were strangely heated,'' Ms Feldman says.

The exercise, she explains, was "a friendly and fun way to recognise the importance of men in our lives".

The first plate to arrive, a portrait of Marianne Faithfull painted in blue by Debbie Rosser from Wolverhampton, celebrated the singer as "charming and funny and above all an object lesson in survival".

The plates collected will probably be exhibited - like the patchwork quilt, designed to celebrate 75 years of suffrage, made by listeners in 1993.

"It's an example of who they really are," Ms Feldman says of the quilt, pointing out one patch sewn with parachute silk collected in the Second World War, a second to celebrate women in dentistry, and a third representing the right's favourite bogey-people - lesbians. (The conservative critics may be relieved to hear that the programme's editors and its main presenter, Jenni Murray, all have children and all live with men.) The only criticism that annoys Ms Feldman, who confesses to enjoying Men Behaving Badly and Loaded magazine, is the suggestion that Woman's Hour is humourless.

"We think we're terribly funny,'' she says, wounded. "I do get upset about the humour thing because we do have such a laugh on the programme." Her co-editor, Ms Selerie, does, however, acknowledge "a degree of seriousness" in the programme.

But whether it is worthy or witty, does the programme not patronise women, by assuming they need a little slot of their own? The answer is a resounding No.

Woman's Hour, Ms Feldman points out tartly, "isn't regarded as a ghetto, it's regarded as a flagship".

From then to now

Woman's Hour might still be there and pickles might still feature, but in tone, accent, and, above all, social attitudes, today's programme is a world away from the first edition, broadcast between 2 and 3pm on 6 October, 1946.

For a start, it was presented by a man, Alan Ivieson, although the contributorswere women, and the programme, he told the women of Britain, "was your programme - designed for you."

The first talk was given by Mrs Mary Manton on "mother's midday meal". "I am just an ordinary housewife," she said, before declaiming: "There's one good thing about bread rationing. It's made us mothers look round for something other than bread for our midday meal!"

No buffalo mozzarella with char-grilled artichokes for her. "Once or twice a week I buy a couple of herrings. When I get home I've very likely got the downstairs rooms to mop and dust - I can do this, and keep an eye on the herrings as they cook."

After "If I Had My Way" by Bing Crosby, for Mrs Groome, of Rushden, Northamptonshire, and "Starlight Serenade" by Vera Lynn for Mrs Mitchell of Dennistoun, Glasgow, Mrs Kay Beattie gave a talk on make-up and grooming entitled "putting your best face forward".

"There's no reason why one shouldn't look nice always," she said. "Of course one can't wear one's best clothes for scrubbing the floor... But one can devise a neat and becoming sort of uniform for the job." Hair was a particular problem, she said, particularly with the dust from beaten carpets.

Mrs Louise Donald of Aberdeen asked how to make best use of that old- fashioned item of furniture, the Whatnot. Mr Ivieson's advice: turn it into a bookcase; cut it in two and make a bedside table and a tea-table; or best of all, leave it as it is.

After the serial, Under the Red Robe, Mr Ivieson announced the programme was being listened to by a panel representing a cross-section of women's interests: Miss Margaret Bendfield, former minister of labour, Miss Deborah Kerr, the film star, and Mrs Elsie May Crump, "wife of a butcher from Chorlton-cum-Hardy". They would be giving their verdict the next day. The Inkspots sang "Whispering Grass". And an institution was born.