The Years of Grace: Careers

The fifth and final section of The Years of Grace provides advice for girls about careers, although Noel Streatfeild emphasises in her introduction that “the best career for every woman is, of course, taking care of her husband and home”. (Noel, you big hypocrite. As if you ever got married or did any housekeeping.) But before I describe the careers open to Fifties Girl, I’d just like to point out that this book was first published in 1950, a mere five years after the end of the Second World War. During the war, young English women were conscripted into the army, navy or air force if they weren’t already doing vital war work. Women were welding armaments in factories, driving ambulances through the Blitz, putting out fires started by incendiary bombs, shooting down enemy bombers, taking new planes on test flights, driving supply lorries, plotting ship convoys, decoding enemy messages at Bletchley Park, and being parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe to help the Resistance.

But that had all changed by 1950. According to The Years of Grace, girls could aspire to be nurses but not doctors; air stewardesses but not pilots or aeronautical engineers; school teachers but not university professors; secretaries but not managers.

Of the thirteen chapters, a significant number are devoted to destroying any illusions the teenage reader might have about ‘glamorous’ careers. The girl who dreams of being a prima ballerina, film star, famous singer or ice-skating star is firmly told that her chances of making it to the top are infinitesimal – even if she happened to have the requisite talent, it would require an enormous amount of time, money, luck and sheer, backbreaking effort to get anywhere near stardom. I was interested to see that an entire chapter was devoted to ice-skating, of all things, as a career. Apparently, most towns in 1950s England had ice rinks that employed skating coaches and hosted professional ice shows, each show needing a large number of “chorus skaters” (producers looked for girls with “personality, a good figure, a pretty face and well-shaped legs”). However, only a lucky few of these chorus girls would reach the exciting heights of understudy to the solo skater, and only if they had unusual skills (“for example, should you be able to skate indifferently with a live cobra, you are more likely to impress the management than if you skate superbly with a man”).

The other chapters give practical advice about more achievable careers. For example, Mary Field provides a lot of useful information about various behind-the-scenes jobs in the film industry (prop buying, set designing, wig-making, editing, publicity) and gives a frank assessment of women’s prospects:

“As the film production business is a fairly new one – only just over fifty years old – there has not been time for much sex discrimination to grow up and workers get the ‘rate for the job’ without reference to their sex. This is good in one way, because so many jobs may be open to a girl-worker, but it means also that a girl has got to be better than her men competitors to get and keep a position.”

Then there are chapters about the realities of nursing, school-teaching and agricultural jobs, each one emphasising that the rewards of such jobs are emotional, rather than financial. And even nursing requires that a girl be glamorous:

“A good nurse should look as pretty as possible, her shoes should always be polished, her fingernails carefully manicured, her hair done neatly but in a way that suits her. She should somehow manage to look – and smell – as fresh as a daisy, no matter how tired she is – and her nose shouldn’t shine!”

Girls wanting to earn a decent salary are encouraged to think about retail jobs or the Civil Service. Marjorie Linstead claims “Her Majesty’s Civil Service is now freely open to women” and that “the civil service, as a career has been, and is being, combined with marriage and a home by some women”. (The author does not seem aware of the fact that married women were barred from working at the Foreign Office, a situation that continued until 1972.) There’s also secretarial work in private businesses, which requires a girl to be well-groomed (of course), dignified, have a good memory, be excellent at typing and shorthand and adding numbers, and most importantly, to be devoted to her (male) employer and to ensure he never, ever feels he’s incompetent, even when he is, as illustrated in this extract from a hypothetical secretary’s diary:

“2:30 pm – Board meeting–took minutes and rushed a copy into Smithy immediately afterwards, so he could see what had been said, as he was half-asleep during best part of Board. Worked on Fuller accounts for rest of afternoon–felt sure that something was wrong somewhere, but S. said, ‘No, impossible.’ Turned out I was right, but with S. in that mood had to persuade him that the idea of a possible error had been his from the very beginning. Eventually he beamed all over and said, ‘Sue, I had an instinct about that!’”

'Above the clouds' by Alice Bush, in 'The Years of Grace'Then there’s the most lucrative career of all for a girl – being an air stewardess. Women could earn up to nine pounds a week, plus a flying allowance and an overseas allowance and free world travel and free hotel stays, and they were provided with a stylish uniform. Of the four thousand applications, only about forty lucky girls were offered a job with B.O.A.C. each year. Such a girl had to be between 21 and 28 years old, have a “good private school background”, speak at least one foreign language, have nursing or catering experience, be charming and beautiful, and be willing to submit to a “thorough checkup” by airline doctors every couple of months. Also, she had to be able to stay smiling during non-stop twelve-hour shifts, in which she was expected to serve food and drinks, calm nervous flyers, cure travel sickness, amuse fretful children, change nappies and “delicately snub the wolf” (it is not clear whether the sexual harrassers were passengers or pilots, or both). But it’s okay, she’d probably manage to snare a husband pretty quickly:

“There is a retiring age in B.O.A.C., it is fifty-five, but no stewardess has yet come within smelling distance of retiring. After all, they are hand-picked young women, with character, charm and pleasing looks. It will not surprise you, therefore, to learn that 95 per cent marry, and their usual length of service with the corporation is only two years.”

You know what? None of the above career options sounds very appealing to me! I think I’d like to write books. Fortunately, Noel Streatfeild knows all about that:

“You can’t, of course, learn to be an author. An author is born to write, just as a singer is born to sing … They may write masterpieces or they may write what is rudely known as pulp, but they have qualities which make them writers … amongst them you will find a blotting-paper memory which has soaked in everything seen and heard. Often a faultless ear for dialogue, so that it is impossible for any person to say something which belongs to another person. A vivid imagination. Usually ruthless individualism. And of course, an ear for cadences, a love of words, and, in the case of the novelist and biographer, a vast interest in human beings.”

But don’t forget about a day job:

“Wolves do not just sit on the doorsteps of young artists taking a casual lick at the paintwork, they come inside and sit on the hearth-rug, taking all the warmth from the fire. You may think now that you won’t mind being poor if only you can give your talent full scope. Maybe, but all the same, before developing your talent, find a nice humdrum job that will support you in hard times and keep the wolf, not only off the hearth-rug, but possibly several streets away.”

Very wise words, Noel. Some of this book’s advice might be a little out of date, but The Years of Grace contains a few timeless truths.

You might also be interested in reading:

1. The Years of Grace : You
2. The Years of Grace : Your Home
3. The Years of Grace : Leisure
4. The Years of Grace : Sport
5. The Years of Grace : Careers

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