The premise of this book is simple – as the title suggests, it’s about the brilliant careers of 10 women living through the 1950s. I heard Cooke speak about it a few years ago at Charleston book festival but it’s taken me some time to get around to reading it but it’s every bit as entertaining and educational as she promised. As a whole, it is a compelling portrait of a decade in which women responded to the social and economic changes that took place during the second world war. The diet of wasp waists, home baking and proud home makers with which we’ve been fed was only a small part of the story – by 1957, 33% of married women worked – and here we have an actress, film makers, an archaeologist, a high court judge, an architect, a cutting edge gardener, a cookery writer and a motor racing driver as prisms through which to explore women’s new opportunities. Each individual account is rather superficial but I didn’t mind that, as Cooke’s ambition is less biography, more broad narrative about emancipation and pioneers. Her style is relaxed and she often goes off at a tangent, but what really shines through is her obvious passion about the era, her subjects and the social history she is plotting. There’s some useful historical footnotes, a timeline (fish fingers arrived on the market in 1955) and a section on fashion, which add to the overall impression of a well researched book that’s also hugely accessible.
As well as the careers of the ten women Cooke puts in the spotlight, we get the low down on their personal lives, which are often just as groundbreaking – divorce, affairs (with men and other women), secret love children and open relationships all feature. Considering women living through the 1950s could not take out a mortgage in their own name and had to produce a marriage certificate to be fitted with a diaphragm, Cooke’s subjects are ahead of their time in more ways than one.
Margery Fish, for example, started her first job before women had the vote and embarks on a whole new career at the age of 64. I especially warmed to her after learning that she snorted at the word “ladies” – “women were only ever women”. Another, Rose Heilbron, was a hugely popular and successful barrister who because the first women judge and, Cooke tells us, cleverly used the media to cultivate a persona that meant she avoided being seen as a potential threat to the establishment or becoming a source on envy and spite for other women, and instead was a national treasure that everyone admired. That said, Cooke speculates that Rose’s popular public profile may well have checked her career when she lost out on becoming the first woman to be appointed to the high court. Cooke goes on to note that, whilst Rose was very much a trailblazer, the conservative forces that undoubtedly held her back still exercise a strong grip on her profession: of the current 91 high court judges, only 17 are women, and only 1 woman sits in the supreme court.
HER BRILLIANT CAREER is shot through with other similar reflections on the role of women today and I’m sure Cooke’s background as a journalist is partly responsible for how wide ranging, engaging and relevant she makes her subject matter. Not a huge fan of non fiction, this actually held my attention more than the novel I’ve been reading since (of which more soon). Whether you are interested in feminism or not, this is a great read, and each and every one of the individuals featured has a story well worth the telling.