literary journalism sex & gender

‘Difficult Women’ & ‘Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders’

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 too plain or 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 wed, further curbed potential. Until the end of the Second World War, the average length of a woman’s teaching career was only three years.

Despite these obstacles, a handful of profession pioneers forged ahead to break ground in the interwar period…

Read the full article online in The Spectator

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