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 web editor of the New Statesman.

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

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How wine crosses national boundaries

With a glass of wine, and a bit of imagination, wine can take us anywhere.

Wine offers many pleasures, one of which is effortless movement. You can visit places that make the wines you love, but you can also sip yourself to where these grapes once grew, or use a mind-expanding mouthful to conjure somewhere unrelated but more appropriate to your mood. Chablis, say, need not transport you to damp and landlocked Burgundy, even if the vines flourish there, not when those stony white wines suit sun, sea and shellfish so well.

Still, I’d never been to Istria – a triangle of land across the Adriatic from the upper calf of Italy’s boot – either in vino or in veritas, until I tried a selection of wines from Pacta Connect, a Brighton-based, wine-importing couple obsessed with Central and Eastern Europe. 

The tapas restaurant Poco on Broadway Market in east London has fiercely ecological credentials – it uses lots of locally sourced and sustainably grown food and the space is a former bike shop – but this fierceness doesn’t extend to entirely virtuous wine-buying, thank goodness. I’m all for saving the planet: waggle the eco-spear too hard, however, and I’ll be forced to drink nothing but English wine. Trying each other’s wines, like learning each other’s customs, is vital to understanding: there’s no point improving the atmosphere if we all just sit around inhaling our own CO2 at home.

The world is full of wine and it is our duty to drink variously in the name of peace and co-operation – which are not gifts that have frequently been bestowed on Istria. I have sought enlightenment from Anna, the Culinary Anthropologist. A cookery teacher and part-time Istrian, she has a house on the peninsula and a PhD in progress on its gastronomy. So now, I know that Istria is a peninsula, even if its borders are debated – a result of Croatia, Slovenia and Italy all wanting a piece of its fertile red soil and Mediterranean climate.

From ancient Romans to independence-seeking Croatians in the early 1990s, all sorts of people have churned up the vineyards, which hasn’t stopped the Istrians making wine; political troubles may even have added to the impetus. A strawberry-ish, slightly sparkling Slovenian rosé got on splendidly with plump Greek olives and English bean hummus, topped with pickled tarragon and thyme-like za’atar herbs from the Syrian-Lebanese mountains. A perfumed white called Sivi Pinot by the same winemaker, Miha Batič, from Slovenian Istria’s Vipava Valley, was excellent with kale in lemon juice: an unlikely meeting of the Adriatic, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Sivi Pinot is another name for Pinot Grigio, which seems fair enough: as long as we can raise our glasses and agree to differ, names should be no problem.

But sometimes we can’t. The other Slovenian winemaker on the menu, Uroš Klabjan, lives three kilometres from the Italian city of Trieste, where his Malvazija Istarska would be called Malvasia Istriana. Either way, it is fresh and slightly apricot-like, and goes dangerously well with nothing at all: I see why this is Istria’s most popular white grape. His Refošk, an intense red, is also good but there is a complicated argument over when Refošk should be called Teran. Like battles over parts of the Balkans, these wrangles seem incomprehensible to many of us, but it’s sobering to think that wine can reflect the less pleasant aspects of cross-cultural contact. Intolerance and jingoism don’t taste any better than they sound.

We finish with Gerzinić’s Yellow Muskat and rhubarb parfait: Croatian dessert wine from an ancient grape found around the world, with an English plant transformed by a French name. There’s nothing sweeter than international co-operation. Except, perhaps, armchair travel.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain