British journalist Cooke recounts the stories of 10 women whose personal and professional lives shattered the common image of a repressed 1950s homemaker.
Though the seven chapters (one chapter weaves together the life stories of three women) can be enjoyed as stand-alone biographies, when read as a whole, the narrative creates a fascinating portrait of cultural life in post–World War II Britain. The war upended social roles in Britain. During wartime, women filled jobs men vacated, but at the war’s conclusion, the veterans wanted their positions back. How should the women who wanted to work outside the home during the 1950s pursue that goal? Cooke noted how, for women on a career path, the route forward was a fraught one. “Those who embarked on careers,” she writes, “had to be thick-skinned: immune to slights and knock-backs, resolute in the face of tremendous social expectation and prepared for loneliness.” The author’s subjects include a best-selling cookbook author, a magazine editor, a rally car driver, a writer and popular celebrity, an architect, a gardener, a director, a producer, an archaeologist and a judge. The author uses elements of published memoirs, diaries or letters, and she also interviewed numerous friends, relatives and colleagues of each of her subjects. Cooke includes two delightful bonus sections, adding another layer to her snapshot of the era. One discusses fashion in the ’50s, and the other lists “Some Good and Richly Subversive Novels by Women, 1950-60.” For American readers, many of these women will be unfamiliar, and some of the cultural reference points may not click. Regardless, each of the portraits illuminatingly details the struggles and triumphs of these women, who laid the groundwork for working women in the 1960s and beyond.
Cooke’s history of these uncelebrated heroines admirably fills in the gaps in the continuing story of women’s role in the workplace.