Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, by Rachel Cooke, Virago RRP£18.99, 368 pages
In 1951, the future photojournalist Grace Robertson saw a crowd gathering by a London bus. A woman was trying to get on but her voluminous skirt “was so wide, she couldn’t negotiate the door”. At first Robertson laughed at the woman thwarted by her dedication to Dior’s “New Look”. Then it occurred to her: “Are they putting us into these clothes so we can’t get on buses, and take their jobs?”
In Her Brilliant Career, Rachel Cooke, a British journalist, tells the stories of 10 women – from a cook, Patience Gray, to a judge, Rose Heilbron – who didn’t let their skirts stop them.
Having worked throughout both wars, women in the UK had by the 1950s become used to the money, status and pleasures of a job. Getting on the first rung of the career ladder was a thrill. Cooke quotes the journalist Katherine Whitehorn, who remembers telegraphing home in 1956: “HAVE GOT JOB ON PICTURE POST WHICH I WANTED MORE THAN HEAVEN”. But Her Brilliant Career says a great deal more about how hard it was for women to establish a career and be taken seriously than about how exciting their work was.
Patience Gray, who, with Primrose Boyd, wrote Plats du Jour, a bestselling cookbook, was bringing up two children alone when it was published in 1957. A year later she won a competition to become editor of the Observer’s first women’s page, “A Woman’s Perspective”. According to Cooke, she soon had to get used to giving her “woman’s perspective” on the colour schemes of her male colleagues’ living rooms.
Gray met resistance even in a career based on traditionally female skills. The architect Alison Smithson, however, was frustrated by the decisions of planning committees who misunderstood her designs for white modernist homes.
Often, women’s careers grew out of those of their husbands or fathers: Smithson and her husband shared a practice; Muriel Box’s directorial career took shape while her husband was running Gainsborough Studios; Sheila van Damm inherited Soho’s Windmill Theatre from her father and ran its nude show, Revudeville, until 1964; the death of archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes’s lover was the spur for the intense period of work that resulted in her much-reprinted book A Land (1951). Even if they weren’t married to the boss, these women blended their work and life so completely that it was hard to see where one ended and the other began.
In Rose Heilbron, Cooke highlights a woman who resolved some of these contradictions. Heilbron, from a wheeler-dealing Liverpool background, became Britain’s youngest woman barrister in 1938. She insisted in an interview with the Daily Express at the time that being an unmarried lawyer did “not mean I am sacrificing my life for my career. I am a home-lover.”
Heilbron’s high-profile legal work included defending women accused of murder in cases that then carried the death penalty. In 1957 she was raised to the judiciary as recorder of Burnley and England’s first woman judge. The Daily Herald reported that “all Burnley turned up to see what was going on”.
Heilbron is, however, the only one of Cooke’s 10 women who appears to enjoy her career wholeheartedly, something that the author’s peppy, conversational prose can’t quite conceal. The full-skirted stereotype has been smashed by the end of Her Brilliant Career – but the smashers don’t always seem very happy about it.