Created by Norman Collins and originally presented by Alan Ivimey the programme was first broadcast on 7 October 1946 on the BBC's Light Programme (now called Radio 2). It was transferred to its current home in 1973. Over the years it has been presented by Olive Shapley, Jean Metcalfe (1947, 1958), Marjorie Anderson (until 1972), Judith Chalmers (1966 – 1970), Sue MacGregor (1972 – 1987), Jenni Murray (1987 – present), and Martha Kearney (1998 – March 2007). Sheila McClennon regularly filled in for Murray and Kearney before joining the presenting team of You and Yours. More recently, Carolyn Quinn, Jane Little and Ritula Shah have hosted occasional programmes, and guest presenters have included Oona King and Amanda Platell. Jane Garvey became part of the presenting team on Monday 8 October 2007. On 1 January 2005, the show became Man's Hour for one day only, on which it was presented by Channel 4 News anchor Jon Snow.
In its current format, the first 45 minutes of the programme consists of reports, interviews and debates on health, education, cultural and political topics ostensibly aimed at women and mothers (but often of general interest). The last 15 minutes are taken up with short-run drama serials (Woman's Hour Drama)which periodically change. One of the most popular of these are the recurring Ladies of Letters serials starring Prunella Scales and Patricia Routledge. Before 1998 the last quarter of an hour was dedicated to readings.
Woman's Hour was broadcast in the early afternoon until September 1991, but the programme's move to a 10am morning slot was unpopular among some listeners who, for family or other reasons, work only in the morning. Michael Green, the controller of Radio 4, made his decision the previous year and considered the elimination of the programme title; its "outdated" title is a subject of consternation in some quarters. A weekend version is broadcast on Saturday afternoons at 4pm, which features highlights of the previous week.
In its earlier years, it used a variety of popular light classics as signature tunes, including such pieces as Anthony Collins' Vanity Fair and the lively Overture from Gabriel Faure's Masques et Bergamasques. From the early 1970s, specially composed pieces were used.