Despite these obstacles, a handful of professional pioneers forged ahead to break ground in the interwar period. With profiles of 47 unsung heroes and countless others mentioned in passing, Robinson’s book gallops forward at breakneck speed. One might wish for a more fleshed-out portrait of fewer players, but the author makes for an entertaining guide, dipping into ladies’ journals of the time to add levity to what is indeed a serious message. Although legislation in the 1970s clarified the law, as recent equal pay actions brought against the BBC suggest, even a century after the SDRA the career ladder can still be steep for ladies to climb.
A new cohort of educated women brought with it inevitable demands to be allowed into the male professions. Robinson’s new book moves into those workplaces, unpicking the history of the explicit discrimination and implicit cultural norms that blocked women’s progress at every turn. Some of these were laughable: lack of suitable lavatory provision was a favourite. Robinson writes with an often witty touch, which only serves to throw into furious relief the seriousness of the resistance women faced.
Robinson moves so fast through the facts and figures of her story that each page is like watching a landscape fly past the window of a high-speed train. I would have liked her to rest on the track occasionally and flesh out some of her lead players, but this is a nit-picking complaint about an important and crackingly good read – an education in itself.
Jane Robinson’s book is a lesson in how unthinkingly we wear freedom. Well known as a writer and social historian excavating ordinary women’s lives, Robinson focuses this time on the emergence of lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers, architects, scientists and churchwomen after the passing of the landmark law of 1919. Modern professional women will read it with a slow burn of anger and heightened respect for those whose actions, such a relatively brief time ago, made today possible.
In varying degrees these qualities were certainly possessed by many of the women profiled in Jane Robinson’s account of the pioneering adventures of the first professional women.
I was gobsmacked by how little I knew of the first female lawyers, doctors, architects, academics, engineers, civil servants, churchwomen and politicians who flourished in the face of Establishment prejudice.
Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders is a wonderful celebration of female pioneers, though, and makes you astoundingly grateful to be a beneficiary of battles fought and won. The question the book also raises, though, is whether this war is entirely over. We still make gendered assumptions about the professions.
By way of illustration, Robinson quotes a well-known riddle. A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene and the son is taken to the hospital. There the surgeon looks at the boy and says: “I can’t operate, he is my son.”