Sally Feldman has had something of a varied life, from starting her career in women’s and teenage magazines to becoming a board member of the Rationalist Association and contributor to its New Humanist magazine, Feldman has always had her finger on the pulse when it comes to media. Out of all her roles, though, she is best known for work as editor and producer of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Last month, the program celebrated its 70th anniversary, and I had the pleasure of speaking to Feldman about her work and the wider issues surrounding it.
I began by asking about Feldman’s time working for Woman’s Hour, and what are the program’s main achievements. ‘Well it was definitely the best job in the world,’ she replies warmly, ‘I was producer for a long time, then Deputy Editor and then joint-Editor with my dear friend Claire.’ ‘What are Woman’s Hour’s great successes?’ she ponders, ‘well number one having survived’ laugh Feldman. ‘It has survived and remained a place, a vehicle, a voice and a refuge for women – against all odds really.’ While Woman’s Hour may seem like something of an institution to us now, Feldman recalls a time when it wasn’t so. ‘Certainly one of the most dramatic parts of my career was when the then Controller of Radio 4 decided that he didn’t want Woman’s Hour to be there anymore … he felt it was old-fashioned.’ Feldman laughs. ‘I knew and we all knew that it would not be what it was unless it retained that title. I don’t know if it would be allowed now, but in those days we launched the most massive campaign for it to stay. We even had Parliament having an Early Day Motion. Betty Boothroyd, was then Speaker and she rang me up one day and said, “Look, we’ve got this Standing Motion, which we can keep alive if people sign it every day, is there anything else you can do?” And I was actually asked to call up my friends in Parliament to keep it going. Those were the days …’
Woman’s Hour has survived and remained a place, a vehicle, a voice and a refuge for women – against all odds really
The campaign rumbled on, and Feldman remembers some of the more light-hearted moments of it. ‘We had these badges made that read ‘I’m a Woman’s Hour man’ and they were sent to every male listener who wrote in, and one of my favourite times was there was a big party in the BBC Council Chamber – I think it was for the Archers or something – and there were all these huge, forbidding portraits of old male director generals (and of course they all were men), and by the time the guests arrived at the party we’d stuck these badges on all of them.’ As we now know, the plans to scrap Woman’s Hour failed, and the program has continued in its mission. As Feldman explains, ‘whatever the subject, you would ask the company, charity, organisation etc to put up a woman speaker and that was very important. I used to call it Twin Peaks as it would address things that were of particular interest to women and then anything of general interest but from a woman’s perspective … Woman’s Hour is still there after all the changes to women’s lives and it’s still celebrating them, and it’s still much-loved.’
Moving on from her time working at Woman’s Hour, I asked Feldman what she thinks are the main challenges facing young women today. ‘Confidence, really,’ she replies, ‘confidence that they can do what they want.’ ‘There are so many liberating things about the sexual revolution and the digital revolution, but there’s also a lot that’s quite nasty and threatening. I mean the kind of abuse that women receive online, the kind of way they’re treated – the Trumpism if you like – and they need a great deal of confidence to not be deterred by that, to deal with that and not feel forced into acting the way that men want.’
‘they need a great deal of confidence to not be deterred by that’
Feldman believes the issue of confidence applies to careers as well as life in general. ‘One of the things that always held women back was the feeling that they weren’t good enough when they were’, she explains. ‘Just like men always think they’re good enough when they’re not – not always, not always!’ she hastens to add, perhaps remembering the gender of her interviewer. As someone who’s sat through numerous political meetings with various pub bores, I tell her not to worry as I very much agree.
We end the interview by talking about a recent article Feldman wrote criticising celebrity dietary trends. I asked her if the new focus on health and wellbeing was becoming such an imperative it was actually beginning to be detrimental to it. ‘It is nice to be thin – you can’t get away from that’, she puts forward, ‘but the way to be it the way to be it is to be healthy, to look after yourself, not to be obsessed by it and to love the way you look.’ For both men and women, Feldman says, ‘eat properly and exercise, be sensible, don’t do too many drugs, but don’t fret about it: just enjoy life’.