Mia Levitin

Are we still prejudiced against professional women?

Two books highlight the hostility directed against working women in the 20th century — and how far feminism still has to go

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.

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
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.

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