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Her Brilliant Career
Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties
One of the most arresting things in Rachel Cooke's lively group biography of a selection of 1950s women is a picture of the architect Alison Smithson, sitting at a table outside the 'camping box' she had built in the country. She is wearing - and this is the late 1950s - a striped all-in-one that looks like something Kate Moss might wear to Glastonbury.
But what is really striking to the modern (female) eye is that there is a carry cot with a baby in it at her feet and a small child playing behind her, to whom she is paying no attention at all. Smithson is sitting at her table, working. She is a mother who is completely absorbed by her profession and she clearly feels not a vestige of guilt about it.
The 1950s are generally regarded as the last gasp of traditional womanhood, when a woman's place was still in the home, waiting for her husband to come back so she could give him his tea, after a hard day cleaning the house and hanging up clothes on washing lines. It was a world where children played in the street safely and came back apple-cheeked for a cup of Horlicks before bed. It was a time of girdles, fully fitted stockings and permanent waves. For advertisers, it was the era of women in the kitchen talking about washing powder.
But what Cooke reveals is that the roles of women in the 1950s were much more nuanced and interesting than shows such as Call the Midwife suggest. Yes, women could not take out a mortgage in their own name, even if they had a job, nor could they be fitted for a diaphragm unless they had a marriage certificate. Abortion was illegal, too. But while most women spent about 60 hours a week on housework, in 1956, 30% of married women worked. And while 75% of women were married, the divorce rate was rising exponentially. In 1954 there were six times the number of divorces than there had been before the war.
Cooke has set out to prove that the 1950s for women was, in Katharine Whitehorn's phrase, more than a "damp patch" between the war and the Swinging Sixties. She has chosen to profile 10 "extraordinary" personalities ranging from Patience Gray, whose book Plats du Jour became the bestselling cookbook of the decade, to Muriel and Betty Box - the sisters-in-law who, as director and producer at Gainsborough Studios, were dubbed by Noël Coward the Brontës of Shepherd's Bush.
The most satisfying story in the book is that of the garden writer Margery Fish, who spent years married to a tyrannical, reactionary former editor of the Daily Mail (is there any other kind?), who insisted on his garden being full of regimented lawns and dahlias. On his death, Fish transformed it into a harmonious, frothing space that turned luscious planting into an art form. The hugely successful book she wrote about this was called We Made a Garden, but as Cooke points out, a more honest title could have been A Gardener's Revenge.
Then there is the Daily Express columnist Nancy Spain, who became famous for her appearances on the television show What's My Line, on which she appeared with Gilbert Harding, to whom she became briefly engaged. This would have been a lavender marriage, as both parties were gay. Nancy lived with Joan ('Johnnie') Laurie, who was the founding editor of She magazine. In her autobiography Why I'm Not a Millionaire, Nancy confided that "all my boyfriends had darted off and married someone else; but now it would be impossible for me to take a step without consulting Johnnie".
What she didn't confess to her readers was that 'Johnnie's' youngest son, Tom, was actually Nancy's own biological child. She had concealed her pregnancy, and 'Johnnie' filled out the child's birth certificate, listing her husband Paul as the father, even though he had died two years previously. So there is nothing new about two-mother families. Tom did not discover the truth of his parentage until 1964, when both women died in a plane crash on the way to the Grand National.
It's a story worthy of a telenovela, especially when you throw in Nancy's other lovers, who included Marlene Dietrich and 'Johnnie's' other companion, the rally-driving champion Sheila van Damm. No new-look skirts and net petticoats for them.
A heroine for our times is the first female judge, Rose Heilbron, the lower-middle-class Jewish girl from Liverpool who became Britain's youngest ever female barrister and the first woman to lead in a murder trial. At the age of 34 she became the first of her sex to take silk - a fact that made headline news all over the commonwealth. Such was her fame that when she was made the recorder of Burnley, housewives and schoolgirls queued in the rain to see her sworn in.
Heilbron was married to a surgeon and had one daughter (who is now a barrister). In her photographs, she looks glamorous even in her wig. In 1975 she chaired the group that changed the legislation about rape, making it law for the complainant not to have to answer questions about their sexual history and to remain anonymous. Heilbron was a household name, but she was a rare creature. Even today, out of the 108 High Court judges only 18 are women.
This is a refreshing book - it is rather wonderful to read about women who achieve great things without spending a nanosecond worrying about whether they are spending enough quality time with their children, or whether they need Botox. Cooke's subjects are gloriously tough, too busy pursuing their dreams for introspection or self-doubt. These women achieved what they did because they were able to pierce the blanket of male supremacy. They were happy to achieve something; they weren't obsessed with having it all.
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