‘Anger can be creative,’ – historian Jane Robinson on pioneering women, telling stories and writing in her apron

Robinson is a social historian, writing about women pioneers, the women that changed the world, so perhaps the apron balances it out.

Author Jane Robinson writes books wearing an apron.

‘There’s some weird, horrible domestic subtext to this – I don’t like to think about it too much!’ she says. ‘But when I’ve got my apron on, I know it’s time to write. Then I take it off to have tea.’

Robinson is a social historian, writing about women pioneers, the women that changed the world, so perhaps the apron balances it out. Regardless, her latest book, Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders: The Pioneering Adventures of the First Professional Women, is her eleventh – if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Now, on this cold, January night, she’s at The Collection Museum in Lincoln, to talk about the book to a packed auditorium. I’ve managed to grab her for ten minutes before she goes on, put together the pieces of her own past.
Robinson’s writing career started when she was working in an antiquarian bookshop, straight out of university.

‘One day, a guy came in and said he wanted to start collecting every book that had ever been written by a woman traveller,’ she says. ‘At that stage, I thought that would probably be about thirty or forty books. I was telling another friend this and they said ‘Why don’t you do a list?’ I thought that was a good idea – a way of making my name in the antiquarian world. And then I started reading the books I was only supposed to be listing. There were names like To Lake Tanganyika in a Bath Chair and To Outcast Siberian Lepers and I just thought, who were these people writing these books and doing this extraordinary travelling?’

The list of books turned into a book written by Robinson. She chose to focus specifically on the women that had written about their adventures, that told their own stories. She featured 450 women and left as many out. So much for thirty or forty.

Since then, she’s written books about suffragettes and illegitimacy, the first women to get university degrees and the WI. She’s written a biography of Mary Seacole ‘the charismatic black nurse who became a heroine of the Crimea’ and the English women of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, the ones that sided with the Indians in the conflict.

‘Usually, there’s one standout story in each book,’ says Robinson. ‘That story leads to the next book and then the next book and then the next book.’

Her latest, Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders, is about women a hundred years ago, trying to break into professions. It must be difficult, I think, immersing yourself completely in stories about oppression and suppression, seeing talent, passion and lives go to waste.

‘In some ways it makes me feel optimistic,’ she says. ‘These were ordinary women – our great-grandmothers, our batty great-aunts – doing amazing things and that’s really uplifting. But then I realised the battles they were fighting, we’re still fighting, and the prejudice they were coming up against… it’s not quite the same but there’s still prejudice there. I don’t think they would be particularly proud of us for the pace of change that’s followed their pioneering. I’m uplifted because they’re inspiring people but it’s a little bit depressing sometimes to realise things haven’t changed as much as we would hope.’

This is the thing that makes the evening magic – this feeling that the stories Robinson tells are not really over. The women in the book, the women she talks about in her lecture, might as well be sitting in the audience – their cloche hats and brollies filling up the back row – for how relevant, how resonant, their stories feel to the women that have bought tickets, found something cultural to do with their Friday night.

The way this is revealed is simple: after the talk, Robinson opens the floor for a Q&A. Gradually, slowly at first and then with increased urgency, people start putting up their hands, telling their own stories. We hear about women not given jobs in the armed forces because they weren’t wearing makeup, women not offered jobs because they were. Women in their sixties forced to do needlework instead of woodwork, teenage daughters now that are guided towards ‘more suitable’ A-levels. We hear from women that needed male relatives to accompany them to banks and sign paperwork before they could make any kind of financial decision, line managers telling women not to bother with aspects of training because ‘you won’t be interested in this.’ A woman in the row in front of me talks about her time at university, about applying for a philosophy course with a less-academic male friend. The friend got on the course. She was told that, if she wanted to do philosophy, she would also have to take an extra course in mathematics to prove herself because ‘the female brain isn’t logical.’

The women in Robinson’s book helped us get where we are but we’re not there yet. Over my short time on Earth so far, I’ve realised that being a woman means being angry quite a lot of the time. Robinson says she channels that anger – she finds another woman, sometimes in another time, that was angry about the same thing, finds out what she did.

‘It can be quite creative,’ she says.

It’s an exciting time for Robinson. Aside from travelling, doing talks, writing books, she’s currently in talks about adapting her book Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education into a TV series. It’s a long process, she says, but extremely exciting.

‘If it comes off,’ she says, ‘I demand a cameo role as a crusty old woman don.’

It must feel like quite a responsibility, I think, to represent these characters, their stories, in a way that does their achievements justice.

‘I feel a sense of gratitude to almost all the women I write about,’ says Robinson. ‘I think this is the least I can do with my particular talents and personality to pay them back for what they did. It sounds a bit soppy but I feel that quite strongly. I’m not going out, breaking down barriers or crossing Antarctica with a baby in my rucksack, but I can give them back their voices.’

The rest of us can listen.

Nothing in the Rulebook editor, Ellen Lavelle, is a graduate of the University of Warwick’s prestigious Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s working on a novel and interviews authors for her blog – you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter. She is currently commissioning features for Nothing in the Rulebook and can be reached via the email address.

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