The Most Inspiring Woman You Never Heard Of
Author Sarah-Jane Stratford explains why she hit the jackpot when she stumbled across the name Hilda Matheson.
As painstaking – and sometimes just painful – as research and finding that next perfect subject can be, sometimes, you really do just get lucky. Okay, so it’s the luck that comes after weeks of work, but luck is luck. That’s how it felt for me, when I was researching pioneering women in journalism and came across the name Hilda Matheson. She was one of a short list of women working in the field in the 1920s. But what really struck me in the two-sentence bio was that she was the first Director of Talks at the BBC. Not the first woman—the first director, period.
I had to know more.
What I quickly discovered is that Hilda Matheson is one of the most inspiring women almost no one has heard of, or remembers. Her biography is jaw-dropping – long before she even got to the BBC, she was recruited to MI5 by TE Lawrence (aka, Lawrence of Arabia) and set up their office in Rome in 1918. After that, she was political secretary to Lady Astor, the first woman to serve as a Member of Parliament. And from there, she was coaxed into this upstart organization that many people were sure was a fad that wouldn’t last. But Hilda had a vision. She sensed that radio could open up worlds far beyond print journalism, if used correctly. Before she came aboard, Talks consisted of people reciting into a microphone. She knew that instead, broadcasters needed to address listeners as if they were talking one-on-one. Under her aegis, Talks and the BBC flourished. One of the programs she created, The Week in Westminster, still airs today.
So anyone who works in – or enjoys – radio like NPR or the BBC owes her a debt, but her name is so obscure, the London house in which she lived doesn’t even have a blue plaque commemorating her. There are a few theories on why her memory became suppressed at the BBC, and it probably didn’t help that the same man who was so desperate to get her in there also came to despise her, possibly because she proved more talented than he was and everyone knew it.
Her tenure at the BBC was therefore brief, brilliant, and stormy. Possibly not great fun in life, but a delight to write. The fact that she also had a two-year affair with Vita Sackville-West during that time (earning her the lifelong enmity of Virginia Woolf) just made it more enticing. She was a woman who pursued what she knew was right, even when it might cost her, making her my new role model. I still can’t believe how lucky I was to get to write about her.
Sarah-Jane Stratford is an author and essayist who has written for the Guardian, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, Salon, and Guernica, among others. She is also a member of WAM! (Women, Action, and the Media).
There's nothing we love more at Shelf Pleasure than a ..
Author and Shelf Pleasure contributor Karen A. Chase on how ..
One of author Mary Miley’s favorite things about being a ..
Author and police psychologist Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D., weighs the pitfalls ..
Little known fact about Shelf Pleasure's Kristen: she's obsessed with ..
Although Debbie De Louise has been a librarian and avid ..