How women finally got to the top!

How women finally got to the top! Despite dire warnings from eminent men that they’d be happier sticking to housework

  • Jane Robinson shares accounts of the first professional women in a history book 
  • Thousands of women took on traditionally male roles during World War I
  • Including Margaret partridge who went on to wire an English village with light



by Jane Robinson (Doubleday £20, 368 pp)

The British Press reported in the early 1930s that, ‘after exhaustive research’, professors in the psychology department of a German university had concluded that ‘women cannot calculate, and when confronted with abstract mathematical problems the female intellect breaks down entirely’.

Margaret Partridge (1891-1967) could not have cared less about the professors’ blinkered opinion of her gender.

In 1917 (a year before women over 30 won the right to vote) she joined thousands of women taking on traditionally male roles in the workplace during World War I and applied for an office role at an engineering firm, where she quickly progressed to become a shop floor supervisor before designing her own engines.

Jane Robinson reflects on the experiences of the first professional women in a fascinating new history book

Although she lost her job once the surviving servicemen came home, Partridge set up her own business as a ‘Country House Lighting Engineer’ and in 1927 became the first woman to wire an English village for electric light.

When she switched on the streetlights of Bampton, Devon, villagers ran from their homes to gasp in awe and one man began taking his newspaper outdoors to read under a streetlight in the evenings. Indoors, children of the period were so terrified by the artificial glare they refused to be left alone with the lights on.

This ‘weird woman’ with her ‘miles of magic cable’ advised other women seeking to break into traditionally male professions that they would need: ‘The impudence of a small monkey, the epidermis of a hippopotamus, the patience of a small elephant, the energy of an ant, a modicum of knowledge of the job — and as much capital as possible.’

In varying degrees these qualities were certainly possessed by many of the women profiled in Jane Robinson’s account of the pioneering adventures of the first professional women.

I was gobsmacked by how little I knew of the first female lawyers, doctors, architects, academics, engineers, civil servants, churchwomen and politicians who flourished in the face of Establishment prejudice.

I vaguely recalled the name of Elizabeth Garrett — the first woman to qualify as a doctor in the UK, in 1865 — but did not know the gripping tale of courageous clergyman’s daughter Dr Frances Hoggan (1843-1927) who set up the first husband-and-wife general practice in Britain, despite giving birth to an illegitimate child (who she later passed off as a sister) in her late teens.

Women aspiring to become doctors had to fight the prejudice of a medical establishment whose knowledge of human biology was so flaky that senior psychiatrists such as Sir Henry Maudsley argued that too much thinking could shrink a woman’s womb.

Elizabeth Garrett (pictured) became the first woman to qualify as a doctor in the UK, in 1865

Men like Maudsley believed the ‘delicate sex’ should be protected from the gory facts of life — without considering that they were already dealing with the sharp end of human reproduction and were often nursing the sick and dying.

Those battling to become lawyers fought the legal principle of precedent. In 1913 Gwyneth Bebb Thomson sued the Law Society for refusing to allow women to train for the legal profession, but lost on the Catch 22 grounds that no woman had ever proved capable of the training . . . because none had ever been allowed to train.

This barrier was finally removed with the passing of The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919. Thomson’s application to Lincoln’s Inn was accepted the next day.

The SDRA got women through the doors of the profession but many minds were still closed against them.

In 1926 the prominent lawyer Edmund Haynes published an essay in which he argued that most ‘normal’ women would be happier doing domestic work.

The suffrage movement, he said, was dominated by ‘intermediates’ or ‘homosexuals’.

He cautioned his readers against the rise of newly masculine women who sought to compete with men in the professions, concluding that those too closely focused on making money were ‘much less useful to society than a common prostitute’.

Amy Johnson (pictured) who is the daughter of a fishmonger from Hull, flew solo from England to Australia in 19-and-a-half days in 1930

This was, of course, the age of the ‘flapper’: a word derived from the old slang for a prostitute. Flappers eschewed constricting corsetry, cut their hair short and danced all night fuelled by cocktails and cigarettes.

Now professional women were making money, they could spend it on having as much fun as men.

A male student’s poem from the period laments the woman who would ‘go out to dinner and go out to dance/ Apparelled in priceless creations from France/ But she laughs when the victim begins on his dreams/ Though by no means averse to his chocolate creams’.

When the press interviewed Amy Johnson at the aerodrome where she was studying for her engineer’s licence, she rubbed her greasy palms on her overalls and faked a fluster: ‘Oh hurry! Where’s my heart-shaped helmet, my manicure set and my powder puff?’ She said it was important she looked good for the photographer because: ‘I’ve been told that every pilot has several proposals weekly, so I must spread abroad my beauty!’

Born in 1903, the fishmonger’s daughter from Hull learned to fly after turning up at the aerodrome with a pound note in her pocket, demanding a lesson.

LADIES CAN’T CLIMB LADDERS by Jane Robinson (Doubleday £20, 368 pp)

In May 1930, she flew solo from England to Australia in 19-and-a-half days and married the pioneering Scottish aviator Jim Mollison in 1932.

But competing for the same flight records (along with Mollison’s heavy drinking) saw ‘The Flying Sweethearts’ divorce in 1938.

Johnson served as a pilot in the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) in 1940 and was posthumously awarded the Albert Medal for Lifesaving (later renamed the George Cross) after adverse weather brought her plane down in 1941.

Nearly 80 years later, would Amy Johnson be pleased or disappointed to learn that just 11 per cent of the UK’s current engineering workforce is female?

I’m sure Frances Hoggan and Gwyneth Bebb Thomson would be thrilled to know that 50 per cent of medical students and practising solicitors are women.

Although some of the modern professional women interviewed by Robinson still encounter prejudice in the workplace, we are finally being permitted to shine as brightly as Margaret Partridge’s electric bulbs.

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