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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The world has not had enough of Daniel Craig as Bond

The actor's fifth film in the franchise will be a welcome return for his layered and troubled Bond.

It looked like a cut-and-dry case. He was going to be the spy who went out in the cold. The one who didn’t say “never say never again.” Dr No Thanks. But with the announcement this week that Daniel Craig is staying on to have one final stab at the role of James Bond, it’s become a case of Resign Another Day. 

A fifth outing in the part will nudge Craig ahead of Pierce Brosnan (four) and comfortably outstrip Timothy Dalton (two) and George Lazenby (one) while leaving him a couple short of both Sean Connery (seven) and Roger Moore (also seven, though consecutive where Connery’s run was not). But it’s the quality not the quantity that counts and Craig has been consistently intriguing and surprising, whether the films themselves have been (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace) or not (Skyfall, Spectre). He has also attracted compliments where it counts. Moore, who died earlier this year, referred to Craig as “the Bond.” Are you going to argue with the man who leapt across a row of snapping crocodiles in Live and Let Die, survived the G-force simulator in Moonraker, told a tiger to “Sit!” in Octopussy and went to bed with Grace Jones in A View to a Kill? Thought not.

I’m glad in one way that Craig has chosen not to leave just yet. He has one of the best heads in the industry. I’m not talking about his business acumen - I mean his actual head, a cross between a breeze-block and a bullet, with distinctive jutting ears stuck on the sides for good measure. He looks formidable before he even produces a weapon. What’s more, he casts the most easily-identifiable shadow since Mickey Mouse. His appeal is not just physical though. His is a genuinely layered and troubled Bond, something which the films immediately prior to his own tried to evoke, but which seemed slightly beyond the range of Pierce Brosnan - who, let it be noted, had some tremendous moments of befuddlement in GoldenEye (the one where Judi Dench, as M, gives him that memorable dressing-down in which she calls him a “dinosaur”) and even came close to a Craigian callousness in The World Is Not Enough.

In the end, it was Brosnan who was not enough. Not dangerous, intelligent, damaged enough. Craig has the whole package. If you’ve seen Casino Royale, and you have forgotten the intermingled strains of pain, resentment and vulnerability that he brought to one cruel line near the end of the film (“The bitch is dead”), then I envy you. I can still hear his chilling delivery. 

Any reservations I feel about his return in the next Bond movie, which is scheduled for November 2019, can be traced to an eagerness to see what else he will do once he hangs up his holster and tuxedo. He was a fine actor before Bond (check out Love is the Devil, The Mother and the BBC’s Our Friends in the North for proof) but has not made such a strong impression so far in extra-curricular parts during his tenure as 007. (He will shortly be seen in Steven Soderbergh’s heist movie Logan Lucky.) It will be exciting to witness what he can do once he is a free agent - or rather, not an agent any more at all.

It would have been nice and neat for Craig to have bowed out with Spectre. It wasn’t an impressive piece of filmmaking by any stretch of the imagination but it dropped so many hints about its hero’s demise that it felt like a natural swansong. Bond is first seen in Spectre  wearing a skull mask during Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. In scenes later on in London, he learns that plans are afoot to sack him. Switching on a radio, he is greeted by “New York, New York”, the lyrics of which have P45 stamped all over them: “Start spreading the news/I’m leaving today.” His off-screen antipathy in interviews towards the idea of being bound to Bond only fuelled the rumour that it was curtains for him.

But though he said straight after finishing Spectre that if he played Bond again it would only be for the dough, no one should doubt his commitment. “I get paid a lot of money to do something I love to do,” he said in 2011, when Skyfall was still in the planning stages. “And whatever it is—the way I was brought up, or whatever—I feel if you’re getting paid you should put the work in. Maybe I’m stupid and everyone’s looking at me and saying: ‘Chill out, take the money and run.’ I can’t do that. I feel the more we put into it, the more we’ll get out. How best can we spend all this money? You don’t just take it and go, ‘Yay! See ya!’ I want millions of people to watch the movie. So why not make it good?”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.