Her Brilliant Career

Her Brilliant Career

Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties

Book - 2014 | First U.S. edition.
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An exuberant group biography--"a splendidly various collection of 'brief lives' written with both gusto and sensitivity" (The Guardian)--that follows ten women in 1950s Britain whose pioneering lives paved the way for feminism and laid the foundation of modern women's success.

In Her Brilliant Career, Rachel Cooke goes back in time to offer an entertaining and iconoclastic look at ten women in the 1950s--pioneers whose professional careers and complicated private lives helped to create the opportunities available to today's women. These plucky and ambitious individuals--among them a film director, a cook, an architect, an editor, an archaeologist, a race car driver--left the house, discovered the bliss of work, and ushered in the era of the working woman.

Daring and independent, these remarkable unsung heroines--whose obscurity makes their accomplishments all the more astonishing and relevant --loved passionately, challenged men's control, made their own mistakes, and took life on their own terms, breaking new ground and offering inspiration. Their individual portraits gradually form a landscape of 1950s culture, and women's unique--and rapidly evolving--role.

Before there could be a Danica Patrick, there had to be a Sheila van Damm; before there was Barbara Walters, there was Nancy Spain; before there was Kathryn Bigelow, came Muriel Box. The pioneers of Her Brilliant Career forever changed the fabric of culture, society, and the work force.

This is the Fifties, retold: vivid, surprising and, most of all, modern.

Her Brilliant Career is illustrated with more than 80 black-and-white photographs.

Publisher: New York, NY :, Harper,, [2014]
Edition: First U.S. edition.
Copyright Date: ©2014
ISBN: 9780062333865
Characteristics: xxv, 341 pages : illustrations


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Feb 03, 2018

I found this book difficult to get into; the author's style immediately gives away how personally attached she is to her subject matter, and some of her enthusiasm and effusiveness was jarring. However, once I hunkered down, I could understand her fascination. Most of the women she wrote about did lead fascinating careers and were, if not all revolutionary, definitely trailblazers.

It shows how quickly things turn that while we are immersed in an almost survivalist "back to nature" phase in cooking and home decor, people aren't talking about the contributions of Patience Gray, who literally lived what she preached about the snout-to-tail philosophy from the 1960s onward. It's equally surprising that as we "look forward" to the post-apocalyptic world (of climate change) we don't reflect more on what architect Alison Smithson had to say about her period's visions of what the world would look like after The Bomb. The more things change...

It is, perhaps, less surprising that we don't reflect on the genius that Muriel and Betty Box brought to the silver screen, in large part because the work they produced wasn't genius- just very successful at a time when women were not expected to know how to shape anything other than "women's" stories for women. And while there were representatives from "women's" fields here (Nancy Spain, the journalist who was assigned the women's page; Margery Fish, the garden writer; and Gray), the stories I found most engrossing were of Jacquetta Hawkes, the archaeologist and Rose Heilbron, the barrister and later judge. Honestly, I dreaded going into those chapters, but rather than being dry they painted a picture not only of the women who forged ahead in spite of opposition but also the fascinating times and societies they traveled in. (Heilbron's story was my favorite; it made me smile to think of a prim, educated woman calmly putting some of the organized crime members she defended firmly in their place.) Some of my enjoyment might also stem from the fact that Cooke's style is more serious and calmer in these chapters; I got the sense throughout that she was mimicking the writing style of each of her subjects.

It's a worthy read for anyone interested in the history of Feminism and British History. However, twenty years after reading Susan Faludi's Backlash, I have to say that it's depressing that it would be such a surprise that women in the Fifties worked outside the home as much as they did or that they enjoyed the measure of success and influence that they did, prejudiced laws notwithstanding. Hopefully this will be a good reminder that the reason the Fifties media pushed the idea of the ideal housewife so hard was because women like this were putting the lie to it.

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