Women have always had to strive harder, be better, and achieve more than their male counterparts in order to make it in the working world, particularly in male-dominated professions. On top of the difficulty of just getting hired in the first place, once the job is achieved, there’s harassment, credit-stealing, and double standards to deal with on a daily basis. The three new novels in this week’s book club span time from the Second World War, when the lack of men in the workforce finally gave many women a chance to prove themselves, to the current pressure and impossible dream of “leaning in” to “have it all.” Hopeful and funny in some ways, depressingly realistic in others, they remind us that it’s a tough job to be a woman in a man’s world.
1. Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce ($27): “If there was anything I wanted most in the world (other, of course, than for the war to end and Hitler to die a quite grisly death), it was to be a journalist. Or to be precise, what people in the know referred to as a Lady War Correspondent. For the last ten years — ever since I’d won a trip to the local newspaper as my prize for writing a quite dreadful poem when I was twelve — I had dreamt of a journalistic career… I was desperate to learn how to be a reporter. The sort of person who always had a notebook in hand, ready to sniff out Political Intrigue, launch Difficult Questions at Governmental Representatives, or, best of all, leap onto the last plane to a far-off country in order to send back Vital Reports of resistance and war.”
Emmeline Lake has always had big career dreams, and she doesn’t care who knows about them, even after being dissuaded by her teachers, who would rather she were quiet and demure. She works as a secretary for Strawman Solicitors and gets some excitement in her volunteer job at Auxiliary Fire Service as a fire station telephone operator. But when she sees an ad for a part-time junior at the publishers of The London Evening Chronicle, she knows it’s her chance to finally get a foot in the door. After all, if there were ever a time that reporters were needed, this is it. If it’s offered, she’ll take the job, no matter what her fiancé Edmund thinks. With the help of her loyal friend Bunty (who’s thinking of taking up a career in politics, hoping the current MPs will want a rest after the war), she lands it, but it’s not the glamorous position she thought; instead, she’s to be a typist for advice columnist Henrietta Bird of Woman’s Friend magazine.
When one gets to work by traversing the semi-bombed-out streets of London, it seems strange to have to throw out any letters that aren’t pleasant enough to be printed (certainly nothing involving sex), but Emmy finds herself drawn to the letters she’s not allowed to print. They’re sad and difficult and real, letters from women who have found themselves in terrible situations, getting involved too deeply with the wrong men, or facing the anguish of losing children to evacuation decrees. Emmy begins to write to these women personally under the forged signature of Henrietta, and she finds herself in the middle of more intrigue than she bargained for. No matter what happens, though, Emmy will soldier on.
2. How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran ($27): In Moran’s sequel to How to Build a Girl, it’s 1994, and 18-year-old Johanna Morrigan has moved out on her own to live in London and make it as a music reporter. Calling herself Dolly Wilde, she’s already managed to score herself a gig as a rock critic at a music magazine, but what she wants, along with fame, a fabulous career, and self-respect, is the attention of John Kite. Her best friend and huge crush has had a career advancement of his own and is now a well-known musician who doesn’t have the time for her he used to. Johanna’s going to write a monthly column about fame in order to get his attention, and possibly his love. However, her seemingly meteoric rise is curtailed by a sudden, public slut-shaming.
Johanna met a stand-up comedian, Jerry Sharp, when she got him admission to a concert. He’s young and hot, has a sitcom, and the adoration of many. Unfortunately, he’s also a misogynist jerk, and when Johanna sleeps with him, there’s a video. Johanna is sex-positive, but society fails to live up to her ethos, and the VHS tape nearly ruins her life and career. Her family, who have spent years planning their isolated dream house (a dream which Johanna wants no part of, preferring the big city) complicate things, particularly her chronically drunk or stoned father. Johanna’s also met two new possible friends, feminist rock star Suzanne Banks and her assistant, Julia, who may be her ticket out of her troubles, or may make things worse.
“London isn’t just a place you live,” says Johanna. “London is a game; a machine; a magnifying glass; an alchemist’s crucible. Britain is a table, tilted so all its loose change rolls toward London, and we are the loose change. I am the loose change. London is a fruit machine, and you are the coin you put in – with the prospect of it coming up all cherries, and bells. You don’t live in London. You play London – to win. That’s why we’re all here. It is a city full of contestants, each chasing one of a million possible prizes: wealth, love, fame. Inspiration.”
3. Lagging Indicators by Jennifer Anglade Dahlberg ($16): A lagging indicator shows, after the fact, that something major has changed in the world. Unemployment, for example, might confirm the existence of a global recession. For Mia Lewis, head of equities at Atlas Capital (“a boutique trading and investment advisory firm”), the lagging indicators in her life only reinforce the fact that her world has come crashing down. Mia is 35 and the only African-American woman in the team of traders. Atlas has come through the 2008 financial collapse with minimal damage. Though she’s sacrificed her emotional, personal, and romantic life for her job, it seems to have been worth it. Until Tripp Armsden is hired, that is.
Trip technically reports to Mia, but you wouldn’t know it from his behavior. He’s brash and takes a lot of risks on unproven companies without asking for his superiors’ permission. He won’t even dump the company when its stock takes a nosedive. What makes things worse is that company founder Peter Branco is taking Tripp’s side, even promoting him over Mia’s position. Mia tells Peter that he can only keep one of the two employees, and she finds herself suddenly out of a job. Her ultimatum goes viral in professional circles, and nobody will hire her. Brashness and confidence, it seems, aren’t desirable qualities when you’re Black and female. Mia also realizes that she’s spent all her time managing her company’s finances instead of her own, and faces possible financial ruin. She decides that a wrongful termination suit is in order, and in her research for the case, she finds out that her firing was even shadier than she thought.
“In the trading world, there was an archaic myth that the mere presence of estrogen took a male trader’s eyes off his business. Against his better judgment, he’d end up dating this woman, or worse, marry her. She would then have to quit her job and have been of little use to the firm in the first place. Perhaps my being an African-American woman kept such thoughts at bay among my white male colleagues or, rather, as Head of Equities, I was strictly off-limits…I wanted to be judged by my results, the volume of my trades and how much money I made for the firm. Trading was still the ultimate boys club, but it was also objective. Money was the ultimate signifier.” A study of the written and unwritten rules of finance, Lagging Indicators is an indication that something seriously needs to change.
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