Mary Whitehouse was famous – or infamous – for her extensive campaigns against ‘filth’ in British television and radio programmes, films and music in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. A leading campaigner, she organised hundreds of letter-writing campaigns, delivered thousands of speeches and even met powerful individuals such as Margaret Thatcher to protest what she dubbed the ‘permissive society’ of the age.
A staunch Christian, Whitehouse was regarded by some as a bigoted figure whose beliefs put her at direct odds with the sexual revolution, feminism, LGBT+ and children’s rights. However, she has also been regarded more positively as someone who was an early campaigner against child porn and paedophilia at a time when the subjects were highly taboo.
Here are 10 facts about the controversial Mary Whitehouse.
1. Her childhood was uneventful
Whitehouse was born in Warwickshire, England, in 1910. In her autobiography, she states that she was the second of four children born to the “less-than-successful businessman” father and a “necessarily resourceful mother”. She went to Chester City Grammar School, and after a period of teacher training became an art teacher in Staffordshire. She became involved with Christian movements at this time.
2. She was married for 60 years
In 1925, Whitehouse joined the Wolverhampton branch of the Oxford Group, later known as the Moral Re-Armament Group (MRA), a moral and spiritual movement group. While there she met Ernest Raymond Whitehouse, who she married in 1940, and remained married to until his death in 2000. The couple had five sons, two of whom died in infancy.
3. She taught sex education
Whitehouse was senior mistress at Madeley Modern School in Shropshire from 1960, where she also taught sex education. During the 1963 Profumo affair, she found some of her pupils mimicking sexual intercourse that they claimed had been televised in a programme about Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. She was scandalised by the ‘filth’ on television that had prompted them, and gave up teaching in 1964 to campaign full time against what she perceived as declining moral standards.
4. She launched a ‘Clean Up TV Campaign’
With vicar’s wife Norah Buckland, in 1964 Whitehouse launched the Clean Up TV (CUTV) Campaign. Its manifesto appealed to the ‘women of Britain’. The campaign’s first public meeting in 1964 was held in Birmingham’s Town Hall and attracted thousands of people from across Britain, the majority of whom supported the movement.
5. She founded the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association
In 1965, Whitehouse founded the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVALA) to succeed the Clean Up TV Campaign. Based in Whitehouse’s then home in Shropshire, the association attacked cultural items such as the situation comedy Till Death Us Do Part, which Whitehouse objected to because of its swearing. She is quoted saying “Bad language coarsens the whole quality of our life. It normalises harsh, often indecent language, which despoils our communication.”
6. She organised letter writing campaigns
Over some 37 years, Whitehouse co-ordinated letter writing campaigns and petitions in protest against the ‘permissive society’ that allowed for sex and violence on British television screens. Her campaigns were sometimes famous: she objected to double entendres in songs such as Chuck Berry’s ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ and a suggestively placed microphone during a Mick Jagger appearance on Top of the Pops.
7. She sued for libel
Whitehouse suing for libel attracted a lot of attention. In 1967, she and the NVALA won a case against the BBC with a full apology and significant damages after writer Johnny Speight implied that the organisation’s members were fascists. In 1977, she had Gay News fined £31,000 and the editor personally fined £3,500 for publishing a poem in which a Roman soldier harboured masochistic and homoerotic feelings towards Jesus on the cross.
8. A comedy show was named after her
A radio and television show called The Mary Whitehouse Experience was broadcast in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A mix of observational comedy sketches and monologues, it used Whitehouse’s name in jest; however, the BBC feared that Whitehouse would initiate litigation for using her name in the show’s title.
9. She was openly despised by the Director General of the BBC
The most famous critic of Whitehouse was Sir Hugh Greene, Director General of the BBC from 1960 to 1969, who was known for his liberal attitudes. He so hated Whitehouse and her complaints to the BBC that he purchased a lewd portrait of Whitehouse, and is reported to have thrown darts at it to vent his frustration.
Whitehouse once said “If you were to ask me to name the one man who more than anybody else had been responsible for the moral collapse in this country, I would name Greene.”
10. She discussed banning sex toys with Margaret Thatcher
By the 1980s, Whitehouse found an ally in then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and is reported to have helped pass the bill of the Protection of Children Act of 1978. Papers released in 2014 indicate that Whitehouse met Thatcher on at least two occasions to discuss banning sex toys in around 1986.