On 20 February 2019, the Bedford Centre will be hosting a panel discussion on the history of women in engineering and we are delighted to be welcoming Jane Robinson as one of our speakers. Jane is the author of the forthcoming ‘Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders’ and, as a taster, she tells us about the book and what inspired her to write it.
Embarking on a new book is terrifying. The one I’m working on now is about the first women in the traditional professions, including engineering, following the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act (the SDRA) in 1919. I wanted to write it because of two books I’ve written before: Bluestockings, about the first women to access a university education – which of course features Royal Holloway and Bedford Colleges – and Hearts and Minds, about the campaign for the vote.
Both are populated not by celebrities but ordinary women fighting for the right to live life on their own terms – and both beg questions. What did educated women do with their new-found education? And what did those seasoned by the suffrage campaign tackle next? Hence Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders, due for publication next year.
I should explain the title: when debating the admission of women to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), members came up with a definitive argument. Ladies can’t possibly be architects: they can’t climb ladders. Job done. (Some would argue women still can’t climb ladders, in terms of their careers.)
The SDRA should have been one of the most significant pieces of legislation in modern British history. Its wording was encouraging: ‘a person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation…’ It signalled at once a political watershed and a social revolution; the point at which women were technically recognised as competent as men.
But that ’technically’ is important; it was an enabling act rather than an empowering one. It enabled establishments like the Bar, like the Royal Colleges of medicine and surgery, architecture and engineering bodies to admit women. However, there was no requirement to admit them, no penalty for not doing so, especially if they were rash enough to marry which in many cases meant instant dismissal.
I said new books were scary: this is why. My fear is always that there’s not enough interesting material available. In the case of Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders there was one light-bulb moment when the fear was dispelled: I opened the digital archive of The Woman Engineer, the journal of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). Running from 1919 to today it’s packed with fascinating information, illustrations, and personalities who burst from the page with good humour and high spirits. These people would be remarkable in any age; that they achieved so much in the face of the sort of prejudice you will hear about at the ‘Magnificent Women’ event, is inspirational.
© Women’s Engineering Society and the IET Archives
There was still prejudice, despite the SDRA. This was in many ways the worst time for women to think of entering the professions. Though they had won temporary respect and valuable experience by metaphorically donning bowler-hats and pinstripes or overalls and grease-guns during the First World War, priority was now given to returning servicemen while their womenfolk were expected to unfold their aprons and retreat to the parlour.
The economic climate of the mid-1920s hit everyone hard. Trained or educated women felt guilty for occupying positions which in the good old days before the war belonged exclusively to men. It took moral courage for male employers and female employees to stand up for the rights of a woman architect, civil engineer, solicitor, university lecturer or doctor.
And it’s a myth that either of the World Wars liberated women in the long term. Expediency meant that they were given the taste of an independent career, but socio-economic pressures ensured that in peacetime, the old order was reluctant to change. Lip-service was paid in the form of the SDRA, but the professional world was still hide-bound by precedent and, quite frankly, scared of competition.
After the passing of the SDRA the implication was that now there were no barriers left for women. Admittedly, only those aged 30 or above could currently vote, but optimists in the WES were sure that would change soon. Besides, having the vote was all very well; as one suffrage campaigner said, it’s what it led to that mattered. And yes, it was going to take a while for reactionary men to get used to working with women at the highest level, but that, too, would only be a matter of time. Wouldn’t it?
© Women’s Engineering Society and the IET Archives
Jane Robinson is a social historian, the author of 10 (and a half!) books including Bluestockings: the Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education, currently in development as a TV drama series, and Hearts and Minds: the Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote which is just out in paperback.
To find out more about the history of women in engineering and the current work WES is undertaking to promote gender diversity and inclusivity, please join us in the Shilling Auditorium at 6:30 on 20 February 2019. Please register for free tickets here.