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Review: Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders

Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders: Early Adventures of Working Women, the Professional Life and the Glass Ceiling audiobook cover.Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders: Early Adventures of Working Women, the Professional Life and the Glass Ceiling. by Jane Robinson.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Duration: 10 hrs 54 mins.
Publisher: Isis Publishing Ltd.

Ladies Can't Climb Ladders by Jane Robinson is a rich, evocative, essay in recognition of the determined, headstrong, unassailable women who challenged the status quo. It is to many of these lesser-known women that society owes the freedoms we now enjoy, and if they taught us anything, it's that a woman's work really is never done...

Audible Summary: "The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 was one of the most significant pieces of legislation in modern Britain. It should have marked a social revolution, opening the doors of the traditional professions to women who had worked so hard during the War, and welcoming them inside as equals. But what really happened? 

Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders focuses on the lives of pioneering women forging careers in the fields of medicine, law, academia, architecture, engineering and the church. In her startling study into the public and private worlds of these unsung heroines, Jane Robinson sheds light on their desires and ambitions, and how family and society responded to this emerging class of working women.

©2020 Jane Robinson (P)Isis Publishing Ltd." 

As we look back a hundred years to the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, Jane Robinson reflects on the pioneering women who helped pave the way for a more egalitarian future. These are the tales of many ordinary women, a "hexagonal citadel" of female workers and academics who revolutionised six main professions at times when women's presence in the workplace was either unwelcome or disrespected; by both society and their male colleagues.

The book begins with the trailblazers; the women who first managed to obstinately wedge a foot inside a door that most people wanted to slam in their faces.

Penny Cookbook cover.These women included Elizabeth Blackwell, whose efforts involved founding a revolutionary National Health Society, whose belief that prevention was better than cure led them to educate the public on matters of healthfulness, and in 1880 they published an affordable cookbook to help families gain adequate nutrition on a budget by doing things like leaving the skins on carrots and potatoes as that is where the goodness lies. The National Health Society's Penny Cookery Book by Edith A. Barnett is now a Public Domain document which has been digitised by the Wellcome Trust and can be read in its entirety online.

Click the cover to download the book in PDF format.

It was interesting to note that, in the workplace, 'ladies' of circumstance, breeding, or education were at a disadvantage to women of a lower class. Women worked, ladies didn't, and this rigid distinction with the 'working class' explained some of the barriers into medicine that were placed before females who wished to become doctors, rather than nurses. Ladies' constitutions were not only considered inferior to those of men, but far weaker than their lower born counterparts.

Another fascinating resource from the Harvard University Library is The Englishwoman's Yearbook (1899) , which offers a glimpse into the lives of women in the emerging Victorian middle-class. Importantly for many of the readers and listeners here, the Internet Archive website makes that digitised copy available to listen to (using rather robotic TTS, but we can't have everything!).

I love the way Robinson provides brief but evocative vignettes into the lives of many other women whose stories have been largely overlooked by history. Many of my favourite stories celebrated the medically-minded women, whose reminiscences included Louisa Martindale and her friend 'Booming Bobs', a Russian Countess with "human bones sticking out of her coat pocket; absentmindedly swept up from the dissecting room".

I also admired the macabre ingenuity of Isabel Hutton, who procured a skull from a gravedigger at home in Scotland because she couldn't afford a medical skeleton to aid her revision. Then there was Gladys Worcup, whose mother:

"will only let her practice as a doctor if she continues to live at home. Gladys agrees, resignedly screwing a plaque to the wall outside the family's front door and getting a handyman to connect the bell push to an alarm by the bed she has occupied since childhood. To allay maternal fears about her going out to see patients after dark, she loads her medical bag with enough heavy objects to brain any would-be attacker."

I could have listened to a whole book of their stories alone, especially when one considers that they were often up against the most strident opponents when it came to their right to practice medicine. Sir Henry Maudsley, an eminent psychiatrist, believed that "women had a finite amount of life force in their bodies and that if they spent it all on thinking, their wombs were likely to atrophy." It sounds ludicrous to us today - as I'm sure it did to many of this book's women at the time - but there were plenty within society who would not dare cast doubt upon the learned opinion of a respectable man.

Proving that such sexism was not confined to medicine, the memorandum from the BBC discussing women who had appealed the Marriage Bar was equally fascinating and horrifying. Writing off 30-something women as being at risk of not marrying if they were encouraged to postpone domesticity any longer, it determined another woman more valuable to the company because her male boss was difficult to work with, making her "inconvenient" to replace.

It was within this challenging climate that Hilda Matheson became the BBC's first Director of Talks, after having previously worked for Nancy Astor, the War Office, and the department that later became MI5. (Her department at the BBC was known as "the University of the air" due to its focus on provoking intellectual debate.) Matheson enjoyed a passionate, uninhibited, fulfilling three-year relationship with Vita Sackville West, documented across 800 pages of love-letters, and which she took no pains to hide at a time when it could have had serious repercussions for her career.

Sportswomen, too, had their share of additional hoops to jump through in pursuit of a professional career. Ladies Golf had additional rules for female players, such as one which decreed that women, "should not be allowed to drive the ball above 70 yds. Any further and they were liable to swing their arms above their shoulders, making an inelegant and possibly embarrassing spectacle of their upper torsos".

With such great opposition across so many sectors, we should be thankful to all the ladies who persevered, often sacrificing personal happiness or comfort in pursuit of virtually unattainable goals. Each successive generation has built upon the foundations laid by their predecessors, and though we still have a long way to go to achieve true equality in the workplace, one thing is certain; Ladies may have been dissuaded from climbing ladders, but nothing will prevent us from lifting each other to new heights. From the shoulders of our mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, we will rise. We owe it to the women who made it possible to try.

The narrator, Karen Cass, had a bright, lively, friendly voice. It can be difficult preventing oneself from drifting off when listening to non-fiction, but Cass holds the listener's attention and delivers the information very nicely, in an accessible and engaging manner. Her reading brought Robinson's women to the forefront of their stories, helping their voices be heard by the wider public in ways few of them could contemplate within their own lifetimes.

Together, Robinson and Cass bring us a book which feels less like it is about these women, and more like one for which they are simply the mediators, allowing the women in its pages to share their stories with us across time. I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in social history. It is very human, and not at all preachy, and deserves a place in the library of everyone who has ever been told that something is not for the likes of them.

*I received this audiobook free of charge in the hope of an honest, unbiased review.

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