Think of a woman in the 1950s and chances are you’ve conjured up a mental image that combines Betty Draper and a wasp-waisted woman in a pinny and a headscarf. There’s a daft belief that all women in the 1950s ever did was wave their husbands off to work, bake cakes and clean the house, and then make sure the kids were out of the way when hubby got home again.
Well, Rachel Cooke’s excellent new book Her Brilliant Career is here to stick two fingers up to that idea. In it, Rachel has handpicked ten wonderfully diverse women from the 1950s and celebrates each of them with a potted biography cataloguing their achievements in the face of a society that wanted women to be seen and not heard.
From chef Patience Gray to architect Alison Smithson, film director Muriel Box and archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes… Rachel has collected together some truly inspiring women who, in many instances, have been sadly forgotten under the weight of their many male counterparts. But no more!
Her Brilliant Career is deliciously readable and engrossing, and Rachel guides us through the highs of these ten women’s achievements… while recognising that, at times, these were flawed women, or not always likeable women. (In my experience, the most interesting women are rarely the most well liked ones!)
The book also contains a selection of photographs illustrating our ten women and the decade that shaped them, many of which are little known to most people and bring a welcome extra dimension to these mini biographies. The photo of Iris Murdoch looking wildly purposeful beside her bed is easily my favourite – conjuring up a much more impressive figure than the genius author we’ve sadly come to remember as a fading fragile flower after her husband John’s posthumous biography of her mental decline.
It’s important that we remember the women who went before us and celebrate their achievements, which allow us to do the things we take for granted today. With the announcement in December 2013 from the Fawcett Society that this year, for the first time in five years, the pay gap between women and men has further widened, books such as Her Brilliant Career are a stark reminder of what has been achieved, but also how far we still have to go to achieve equality.