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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".

New Statesman
Kick starter: Sheila Van Damm in 1964. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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

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Books

Critics details 1: 

Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties

Critics details 2: 

Rachel Cooke

Critics details 3: 

Virago, 368pp, £18.99