In her book Her Brilliant Career, journalist and author Rachel Cooke offers an alternative view of the 1950s woman that counters the cultural symbol of supplicant domesticity we’ve come to accept.
As she narrates the stories of pioneering women whose work paved the way for future generations, Cooke applauds these women’s “sly kind of feminism” and celebrates their struggles. “They doubted themselves, they got in muddles, they made mistakes; feeling defensive, they sometimes seemed difficult and distant even to those who loved them.”
While we may have never heard their stories before, the lessons gleaned from these women of another era are timeless and relatable.
“What do you need the money for? Another mink coat?” asked Betty Box‘s boss when she demanded a pay hike. She was a producer with a glittering track record of hit movies. She was peeved that male peers earned more than her. “You have a rich husband–you don’t need a raise,” he added.
That someone could say this to an employee with no concern for ramifications is maddening. And that she got him to comply is proof that she’d mastered the maneuvers necessary to thrive in an environment far less inviting to women than today.
By age 31 this daughter of a seamstress had already become the first and only female film producer. She bubbled to the top in a macho industry through sheer grit and talent for her craft. Box insisted that she loved her work so much that she would have done it for less. “Though not, of course, for less than the men,” writes Cooke.
Margery Fish authored eight books on a subject matter that she taught herself–the science and art of gardening. Trained as a secretary, she kicked off her career in journalism at the ripe age of 59.
A self-proclaimed “sentimentalist gardener” who loved her snowdrop flowers for their “aloofness and purity,” she was deep into her retirement and horticultural affair when an idea occurred. Margery Fish authored an article that charmed a sizeable audience of beginners. Later she debuted, We Made A Garden, a book that planted seeds for seven others.
Would she have ventured into this new occupation if she had paused to consider the odds–real or imaginary–stacked against her? Half a century later, she has a chapter to her name in a book that celebrates women with brilliant careers.
Patience Gray snagged an editorial job at the Observer when she was 41, armed with a degree in economics, and had one of the most popular cook books of the decade under her belt. “A Women’s Perspective,” was the page she would edit.
“Of course I wondered what were women’s subjects,” Gray wrote in her memoir, adding “In the late Fifties, it was not possible to discuss in print the question of how one might bring up two fatherless children and earn a living while contriving to get home at the precise moment they got back from school.”
So, the page featured pieces on her other interests including architectural exhibitions, lectures, and artsy goings on in Europe. This was perhaps not what the management had in mind, since they compelled her to add a column on domestic bargains. She conceded, but didn’t quit.
Gray continued to travel and reported stories on forbidden subjects albeit for another department. She wrote them for the Foreign Service Offices. In the absence of the Internet, she rarely, if ever, had the gratification of seeing these stories in print because they were sold to “newspapers in far-off places.”
“Diversity being as important in weeds as it is in human beings,” wrote Patience Gray in Honey From A Weed, a book she published three decades after her first. It is an ode to the secret lives of weeds, and of the people who foraged them for meals. Patience Gray’s pages are soaked in genuine respect for the nomadic families from whom she gathered her information. Yet if this book had remained unpublished, one would have thought that with age Gray lost interest in human things.
Her stint at the Observer ended four years after she started when the publication shuffled its leadership and vision. She fell in love with a sculptor and settled with him in rural Italy. Cut off from their friends and family in Britain, they chose to live on the fringes of poverty, without electricity, running water, or kitchen appliances, until the end of their lives.
The book that she wrote in her sixties saw print in 1986 and gained a cult following among new age chefs, particularly in the U.S. If Gray were alive today, perhaps she would have made it to the cast of quirky food fanatics on Anthony Bourdian’s show.
Next time when people roll their eyes at your latest and wildest fixation you can respond with a line from Patience Gray: “Self-preservation is a poor substitute for an unfettered life.”
—Natasha Awasthi is a business designer who artfully untangles messy problems by discovering unexpected patterns–in behavior, processes, and technology. A self-proclaimed Jedi-in-training, she writes not only about business but also about bungling the art of channeling the force, and embracing her creativity. Find her on Twitter or email her here.