Queen Women History Forgot: Hilda Matheson

Hilda Matheson was a pioneer in every sense of the word.

For Women’s History Month, GO is celebrating LGBTQ women we wish we could have learned about in high school history class.

Courtesy of BBC Archives

Hilda Matheson was a pioneer in every sense of the word. She was BBC’s very first Director of Talks and worked tirelessly to impact and change the way that spoken word was delivered to the public. Matheson was a builder of systems and a specialist of details when it came to everything broadcasting related.

In 1928 the ban on broadcasting was overturned and the BBC began reporting rather than simply reading bullet points on air. Matheson was the mastermind behind creating a common standard for creating social commentary behind the factual reporting. She used her network of British political and academic elite to build the repertoire that the BBC is still known for today. Included in the list of speakers she brought in to give presentations was E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Rebecca West, Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Matheson worked to create a more personal experience for radio listeners, recognizing that neither lectures or speeches were appropriate for this new form of communication.

“Broadcasting and other forms of electrical communications have sprung up to meet the urgent requirements of a world which must perish unless it can devise an organization capable of expressing its human and economic unity. [Broadcasting answers] the need for rapid interchange of news and views, for familiarizing each country with the ideas and habits of all other countries, and above all the need for an education which may fit men and women, literate and illiterate, for the complicated world of tomorrow,” Matheson wrote in her 1933 book “Broadcasting,” which became the first authoritative book on the subject.

She was also a lesbian. It could be said that Matheson’s type was poets.  She had serious romantic relationships with both Vita Sackville-West and Dorothy Violet Wellesley, Duchess of Wellington, who were also exes of each other (ahem – lesbian love triangle).

Matheson had a knack for words as she famously wrote Vita over 800 pages in love letters. In her writing, Matheson continual defends her queer identity as “a state of being she was proud of, not a choice to hide.” Matheson and Dorothy Violet Wellesley were lovers for over 8 years. They both wrote about this relationship being a key stabilizer in both their lives. However, their love story tragically came to an end when Matheson died during a routine thyroid operation.

Matheson with her peer Lord Hailey in 1938Courtesy of BBC Archive

Radio was virtually a new form of communication when Matheson began her leadership at Talks. She made Talks one of the most popular programs on BBC because of her style of vetting every script and preparing the speakers by training them to speak as if they were conversing with a friend, rather than providing a college lecture. Matheson believed in empowering the listeners with information so they could grow in their understanding of political issues and shape their own informed opinions.

Beyond her devotion to broadcasting, Matheson also created Questions for Women Voters after the passing of Equal Franchise Act in 1928 as well as the creation of The Week in Westminster (which is still on air today) to provide civics lessons for new members of the electorate.

However, it was her commitment to building trust and providing challenging commentary on air which ultimately led to her leave from the BBC in 1932. At a time when the world most needed honest and forthcoming political commentary, she found herself in a constant battle with John Reith who was head of BBC at the time. Reith took issue with Matheson’s left-leaning politics and began to impose censorship on her shows. Matheson couldn’t stand for this and tendered her resignation shortly after.

You can see a portrayal of Matheson’s life in Sarah-Jane Stratford’s book “Radio Girls.”

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