Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders

Jane Robinson

Doubleday, £20

Review by Rosemary Goring

According to the Times Educational Supplement in 1933: “It is impossible for a man to serve under a woman and retain his self-respect and manhood.”

This august journal spoke for a majority of men, and not a few women, who believed a woman’s place was in the home, either as an accessory to her husband’s professional and personal requirements, or as domestic dog’s body.

Jane Robinson’s many previous books have focussed on women in the 19th and 20th centuries, including intrepid travellers, The Women’s Institute and “bluestockings”. In Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders she continues to mine a rich seam of feminist fascination. In this breezy, conversational but fact-filled account of women’s far from smooth entry to the professional ranks, she turns her attention to the six main occupations that in those days – “and to a certain extent still” – represented the establishment: medicine, education, architecture, law, engineering and the church.

Like many social historians, Robinson’s interest lies with everyday women whose stories are often overlooked. Yet while she warns that some readers will find their favourite famous figures absent, there is a pronounced slant towards England at the expense of the rest of Great Britain.

Her insistence on avoiding celebrities also creates inconsistencies. There is a charming vignette of a dirty and dishevelled Amy Johnson in engineer’s overalls, whereas a glancing reference to the Scottish Women’s Hospitals fails even to namecheck its remarkable founding figure, Dr Elsie Inglis. As a qualified surgeon, Inglis approached the War Office when the First World War broke out to ask to serve on the front line, only to be told, “My good lady, go home and sit still.” Such was the blind prejudice that women intent on following in men’s footsteps had to endure and circumvent if they were to prevail.

Showing how many did so, Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders introduces a vivid cast of talented individuals. Not surprisingly, most are from the middle and upper classes and in a position to pursue expensive education and training. But there are a few from very poor backgrounds who, by force of bursaries and borrowing, personality and perseverance, managed to reach their goal. Whether they were determined to break into the law, design houses or simply take a degree, Robinson is doubtless right when she reflects: “Perhaps the pioneers’ greatest ally was not their ambition, but their stamina.”

This was not an age for wallflowers. Those whose names grace the annals of feminist lore were the human equivalent of weeds: able to flourish anywhere, no matter how harsh the climate or how frequently they were torn out.

The turning point for women’s aspirations, writes Robinson, was not the First World War as generally assumed, but the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919. Thereafter, the modern world as we would recognise it was slowly being born. With each chapter addressing a fresh issue or area of work, Robinson highlights individuals whose experience speaks for many. Among them is Gwyneth Bebb Thomson, who studied jurisprudence at Oxford in 1908. If she had been allowed to graduate, she would have come top of her class. As it was “she left university with nothing more tangible than a warm glow of achievement – not particularly helpful when applying for professional posts alongside men with letters after their names.”

Another is the engineer Margaret Partridge, who built power plants and, from 1927, brought electricity to villages throughout Devon. She said following her chosen profession as a woman required “the impudence of a small monkey; the epidermis of a hippopotamus; the patience of an elephant; the energy of an ant; a modicum of knowledge of the job – and as much capital as possible.”

Covering a swathe of complex ground across a century and more, Robinson writes with brio. Her lightness of touch turns what could be a heavy-going roll-call into a colourful drama as she weaves an inspirational epic from the lives of countless determined, self-propelled women, desperate to pursue a vocation and a purpose beyond the confines of the home.

What unites them, beyond the yearning to use their brains, is a capacity for hard work. Robinson sees them as fairy godmothers: “the kind who bestow gifts which really matter: the fruits of their experience.” Such trailblazers, as she illustrates, “were not the sort to trample down the opposition. The majority did not even seek to be pioneers.” They were ordinary, in the best sense of the word, and all the more exceptional because of it.