Kick starter: Sheila Van Damm in 1964. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Who were the most extraordinary women of the fifties?

Those who made dangerous choices when the only choice seemed to be "marry or die".

Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties
Rachel Cooke
Virago, 368pp, £18.99

Marry or die. If we think of them at all, that is the mantra by which we assume the women of the 1950s lived. Marriage was essential, not least because the alternative was . . . what? Having a job as a secretary or a nurse was acceptable but only as a means of finding a man who would open the door for you to that most desirable of careers – wifehood.

Yet even a moment’s consideration exposes the absurdity of the idea that a whole generation of women was married, occupied with no greater ambition than to make sure their husbands had a hot dinner waiting every night. What of the single women, the working women, the widowed women, the divorced women? Who were they and how did they fill their days? Rachel Cooke’s book is an attempt to answer such questions, to fill in the blanks with what interesting and ambitious women were actually doing between the end of the war and when sex began in 1963.

Her Brilliant Career profiles ten women who lived in ways that resist lazy characterisations of the 1950s. At first glance they have little in common, apart from the decade in which they thrived. Their professions were as varied and unexpected as it is possible to be – from Sheila Van Damm, the rally car driver and theatre manager, to Rose Heilbron, Britain’s first female KC.

Some had private lives we feel a Mad Men-inspired familiarity with, as in the case of Margery Fish, who started off as a secretary at the Daily Mail and ended up marrying her boss, the paper’s editor. Others, such as the cohabiting lesbian trio of Van Damm, the gossip columnist Nancy Spain and the magazine editor Joan Werner Laurie, would probably be considered gloriously unconventional today, too.

“Groundbreaking” feels too stale a word to apply to these women. They weren’t necessarily always happy in their choices – there were setbacks, sexism and suffering – but what unites them is that they were at least making choices. Against the odds, they were in control. Here, Cooke has laid out their lives in seven interconnected essays, with the women’s work contextualised by interviews, diary entries and contemporary press cuttings.

Photographs, too, play an important role in telling these stories. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a 1964 snap of the architect Alison Smithson, sitting at a desk in the garden of the weekend home she shared with her husband and business partner, Peter. She is completely absorbed in drawing, the epitome of the driven career woman our understanding of the decade lacks.

Yet, as Cooke draws out, all is not as it seems. Look closer and you can see the box with handles off to one side that surely contains a baby, while in the background a small boy is clambering along a wall. Suddenly Smithson’s absorption takes on a new dimension. Here is an architect hard at work but, at the same time, she is a mother watching over her children. The duality of this image is thrilling – it’s just a shame that the pictures in this book are printed on the same ink-absorbent paper as the text, sometimes making it difficult to make out the finer details, rather than in a dedicated plate section.

Her Brilliant Career is not intended to be a comprehensive account of female life and work in the 1950s; rather, it is starting point, an appetiser of the delights to come, if only they are sought. In this, Cooke’s chatty footnotes and informative appendices are superb – with a deftness that comes from a complete mastery of the material, she tells us which forgotten films and books are lost gems in urgent need of rediscovery and which are to be avoided at all costs. Discussing Smithson’s relationship with brutalism, Cooke touches on the critic Reyner Banham’s book on the subject and its role in popularising the term, and then exhorts the reader: “Don’t, whatever you do, try reading it.”

Some of the attraction of the 1950s as a period of history is that it is both near and far at the same time – near in terms of time but far in the sense of how much progress we have made in women’s ability to live, work and love as we choose. At the outset, Cooke states that part of what motivated her to tell these stories was “a sly kind of feminism”. By the end of the book, you finally catch on.

More than five decades later, we do not live in a utopia of equality and understanding. There are vast amounts still be done about how few women make it to the top of their profession or feel completely at liberty to make decisions about their body. Institutions are slow to change, even where the will exists.

Perhaps it’s time to do as these women did and just write that book, fly that plane or sing that song exactly as you have always wanted. One day, society will catch up.

Caroline Crampton is the web editor of the New Statesman

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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Harry Potter didn’t cure my depression – but for an hour a day, it helped

These books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But at my lowest moments, Harry Potter was the only thing I enjoyed.

Just over a year ago, I was on a plane to Japan being violently sick. I had filled exactly two-and-a-quarter sick bags with my half-digested ginger-chicken-and-bread-roll before I decided to think about Neville Longbottom. As the plane rocked from side to side with turbulence, I sat completely stiff in my seat, clutching my armrests, and thinking of Neville. I told my boyfriend to shut up. In an effort to abate my nausea, I distracted myself for the remaining hour of the flight by picturing the peaceful plant-lover over and over again, like a visual mantra. I wasn’t sick again.

I’m telling you this anecdote because this was the only time in my life that Harry Potter acted as some strange and magical cure (even then, the fact there was no inflight meal left in my stomach to throw up had more to do with it). And yet, a few years before this, Harry Potter did help me through my depression. When we talk of Harry Potter and depression – which we do, a lot – we imagine that the lessons of the book can teach us, in a Don’t let the Dementors get you down! way, to not be depressed anymore. What do you mean you want to kill yourself? Banish that beast to Azkaban with your silvery kitty cat Patronus!! For me, it wasn’t like that at all.

In 2013 I was depressed. And Harry Potter helped me through. But it wasn’t magical, and it wasn’t wonderful, and there was no lie-back-and-think-of-Neville instant fix. When I closed the cracked spine of the last book, my depression didn’t go away.

Here’s some context, as plain and painlessly as I can put it. I had just graduated from university and ended my four year long relationship. I was living at home and working three jobs a day to be able to save up to do a six-month journalism course in London (the course was free, but eating is a thing).

Early in the morning, my mum would drive me to the local hospital where I would print out sticky labels and put them on patients' folders, in between sobbing in the disabled toilets. Around lunch, I’d go to work in a catering department, where I printed yet more labels and made sure to order the correct amount of gravy granules and beef. At five, my mum would pick me up and drive me home (thanks mum), and I’d have an hour or so to eat something before going to work in the local steak restaurant for the rest of the night. (On weekends, I had a fourth job - I would wake up early to scrub the restaraunt's toilets. Yay!) 

It sucked – even though there was, at least, a woman in the hospital who liked to do an impression of a Big Mouth Billy Bass fish.

“You’re not just depressed, you’re depressing to be around,” said the boy I was not-dating, two weeks after I said we should stop not-dating and a week after I begged him to start not-dating me again. If I was being dramatic and poetic, I’d say he was the kind of boy who stopped at nothing to make you feel unloved, but if I was being honest I’d say: he was really bad at texting back. Still, tip for anyone wondering what to say to someone who is depressed: Not This.

This wasn’t, exactly, the moment I realised I was depressed. (For a little extra context, note that it was Christmas Eve eve!) For a few months, my tongue had felt constantly burnt. Every moment of every day, my mouth felt like I had just bitten into the chewiest, gooiest molten pizza and burned off all my taste buds. Except I hadn’t. Eventually, Google told me this was a little-known symptom of depression called “burning mouth syndrome”. After ignoring clues such as constant crying, and knowing-the-exact-number-of-storeys-you-have-to-jump-from-to-ensure-you-die, I realised what I was. You know, depressed.

And round about here was when Harry came in. I’d always been obsessed with Potty Wee Potter, from the lilac HP branded M&S fleece I wore as a child, to making my brand new uni mates don pillowcases and bin bags to dress up for a screening of Deathly Hallows, Part 1. But by 2013, I hadn’t read the books for a while. So I started again.

I can’t emphasise enough that these books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But one of the worst parts of my depression was my anhedonia – which is the inability to feel pleasure in things you previously found enjoyable. I would spend (literally) all day at work, dreaming of the moment I could crawl into bed with a cheese sandwich and watch my favourite show. But the first bite of the sandwich tasted like dust, and I couldn’t concentrate on watching anything for more than thirty seconds. I lost a lot of weight incredibly fast, and there was no respite from any of my thoughts.

Except: Goblet of Fire. Harry needs a date! And Hermione wants a House Elf revolution! Wait, does Ron fancy her? Harry can’t manage Accio and THERE’S AN ACTUAL DRAGON ON THE WAY. The fourth Harry Potter book is now my favourite, because its episodic and addictive structure meant I couldn’t put it down even when I knew what happened next. I couldn’t enjoy anything in my life at that time, and I’m not even sure I “enjoyed” Harry. But the books were a total and complete distraction, like slipping into a Pensieve and floating down into another world where you could lose track of the time before being yanked, painfully, up and out.

I didn’t learn any lessons from the Dementors. I didn’t learn that love would get me through. As valuable as these messages in Harry Potter are, none of them helped me with my depression. What helped me was – and I can say it and you can say it, because 450 million sold copies have said it – insanely good writing. Addictive, un-put-downable writing. All-consuming, time-consuming, just-a-second-mum-put-mine-back-in-the-oven writing. Writing that allows you to lose yourself in the moments you most want to be lost.

That’s not to say, of course, that the messages of Harry Potter can’t help people through dark times – they have and will continue to do so for many years. There is no right way to be depressed, and there’s no right way to stop. But for me, Potter helped me through my anhedonia when nothing else at all could. It wasn’t magic. It was something ordinary in a world where everything had changed.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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