Book review: Women of the 1950s in Her Brilliant Career

Book review: Rachel Cooke explores career women in the fifties and choose role models that make you want to cheer.

Her Brilliant Career
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It was an Ercol sideboard that prompted the British journalist Rachel Cooke to write Her Brilliant Career, detailing the lives of 10 pioneering professional women in the 1950s. To her surprise, her eBay bargain, thought to be made in 1954, still seemed a remarkably modern-looking piece of furniture and it got her thinking about that "lost decade" tucked between the end of the Second World War and 1960s feminism.

Cooke decided to find out whether there was an alternative to the portrayal of that era’s women as “compliant, smiling” and “obsessed with baking”.

Initially it seemed she was on a wild goose chase but in time names began to crop up and, contrary to initial indications, there were numerous women eligible for inclusion.

These included a rally car driver, an architect and Britain’s first female QC. Cooke made the selection based on “those whose private lives were as modern as their professional lives”.

The women she chose are “like all human beings, flawed” and “their children sometimes had a hard time of it”. This makes the book, as Cooke intended, far more entertaining and readable than if she had written about the glossy superwoman type who is apparently able to juggle it all.

“This is a sly kind of feminism,” Cooke writes in her introduction. “Polemical books that tell us how we might close the pay gap … are all very fine and important but rarely that much fun to read. I prefer the idea of role models, inspirational figures who make you want to cheer.”

Each chapter can be read as a standalone piece but in reading the book cover to cover a picture builds not only of the women but of the times: the food and fashion, the books, arts and culture.

The book is fantastically well researched and even the footnotes contain delightful gems. This quote from the revue performer Iris Chapple is a case in point: “We felt powerful; we felt women could do anything they wanted. We travelled, we made loads of money and we blew it, we met interesting people.”

Certainly makes me want to cheer.