In Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders, the social historian Jane Robinson — whose previous books include histories of suffragettes and bluestockings — champions British women who were ‘first-footers’ in the elite fields of academia, architecture, the Church, engineering, law and medicine.One and a half million women joined the workforce during the first world war (at half the pay of their male counterparts). After the war, however, they were expected to cede their jobs to returning servicemen and resume the role of ‘angel in the house’. The 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act allowed women to qualify for professions, but it was limited in scope.
Women were deemed unfit for purpose for many reasons: they were either too plain or too distractingly pretty; skirts precluded climbing ladders; thinking withered the womb. ‘The female intellect breaks down completely’ when confronted with abstract maths, concluded one report. If all else failed, offices simply weren’t equipped with ladies’ lavatories. ‘Marriage bars’, which required women in teaching and the civil service to resign immediately when they got married, further curbed potential. Until the end of the second world war, the average length of a woman’s teaching career was three years.
Despite these obstacles, a handful of professional pioneers forged ahead to break ground in the interwar period. With
In Difficult Women, Helen Lewis, a staff writer on the Atlantic and a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, profiles women who set out to slay the angel in the house. She shares the stories of leaders in 11 key feminist battles in Britain: abortion, divorce, education, equal pay, professional sport, refuge, same-sex relationships, sex, unpaid work, the vote, and ‘the right to be difficult’.
Contrary to the trend of rah-rah feel-good feminism — epitomised by the bestselling children’s book Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls — Lewis seeks to restore the complexity to female change-makers. We should resist the urge to sanitise our heroines, she argues, just as equal rights should not depend on being naughty or nice. We meet disruptors, such as the working-class suffragette Annie Kenney, who has been elbowed out of history books by the more genteel Pankhursts. Despite the customary image of suffragettes as ‘ladies-who-lunched-and-occasionally-committed-arson’ (like ‘the dippy absent mother in Mary Poppins’), the movement employed quasi-terrorist tactics to make itself heard. ‘Most revolutionaries are not nice,’ writes Lewis.
Certain trailblazers have been erased from the narrative for espousing unpalatable views, such as Erin Pizzey, who opened the first women’s refuge in Britain. Pizzey ‘single-handedly did as much for the cause of women as any other woman alive’, according to
The final battle Lewis addresses is overcoming what she calls the ‘tyranny of niceness’ — ‘one of the most potent forces holding women back’. After the ground gained by the first and second waves of feminism (in the 1910s and 1970s, respectively), Lewis bemoans the toothlessness of the early 2010s: ‘It seemed as though we were congratulating ourselves on “changing the culture”, when there were few concrete victories to report.’ She calls out ‘woke’ virtue-signalling as a smokescreen (for example, companies that offer gender-neutral loos rather than adequate parental-leave packages). ‘Talk is cheap, action is expensive,’ she writes. ‘It’s why the suffragette slogan was “deeds not words”.’
Real, systemic change can occur only through campaigning, Lewis argues, and ‘the war is nowhere near over’. Quite right. But while Difficult Women includes a manifesto — ending with ‘Together, Difficult Women can change the world’ — it is light on practical ideas as to how to do so. ‘Let’s demand more money for adult social care,’ Lewis floats as part of the to-do list to combat unpaid labour, without suggesting how it might be funded.
Sensitive readers should be aware that the author wells up when reminiscing about unions, and calls Margaret Thatcher ‘Mrs T’. But trigger warnings aside, Difficult Women is a well-researched, lively overview of the history of modern feminism. It joins last year’s Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez as an important resource on the ongoing fight for equal rights.