Her Brilliant Career is a collection of ten mini-biographies of women whose extraordinary professional achievements go some way towards debunking our understanding of 1950s women as obedient housewives happily in exile from the workplace. Cooke’s examples are drawn from vocations as wide-ranging as architecture, cookery, archaeology, gardening, film production, journalism, theatre and rally car driving, and topped and tailed with an enlightening introduction about the 1950s female experience, and end chapters on fifties fashion and ‘some good and richly subversive novels by women’ from the period.
It is engagingly written, and full of themes that still (alas) resonate with working women today – the struggles of childcare and relationships, the reticence to be labelled a feminist for fear of alienating the male establishment, and the sheer bravery and stamina required to smash that F-ing Age-Old And Now Rather Boring Glass Ceiling (I have taken the liberty of renaming the standard Glass Ceiling). There are many great stories here but my favourite was that of Rose Heilbron, not just for her staggering career achievements as Britain’s first female QC and judge, but also because of the way the British press and public took Rose to their heart and celebrated her. Can you imagine our press greeting a female high flyer today with headlines such as ‘Is She Our Cleverest Woman?’ and ‘That Girl Rosie…the greatest lawyer in the world’, or ‘unprecedented numbers of housewives and schoolgirls’ waiting two hours to see a woman installed as a judge? I can’t. The press would pick holes in her outfit and we don’t queue for anything except X Factor auditions or the Next sale these days. Sad times.
With the exception of perhaps Muriel and Betty Box, it is fair to say that most of the women in this volume were born into fairly affluent circumstances, and this and the focus on ‘professional’ roles means Her Brilliant Career is a book about the middle class 1950s female experience rather than anything socially broader. I’d like a companion volume on women with far less glamorous jobs who were still in their own way contributing to smashing the aforementioned FAOANRBGC (anything with such endurance deserves its own acronym), such as my Nanny Turner’s career on the buses or my Aunt Dolly’s career as a British Oxygen Factory engineer (described as ‘light engineering’ as she was a lady, despite the fact the work was heavy enough to leave her half-deaf). I’m sure you have your own examples in your own families and I’d love to hear about them. But this is still a complete inspiration and a great read. Go ladies!!