I was in high school when Charlie’s Angels premiered. Of all things, a TV show featuring three women detectives who solved mysteries and fought crime? What a coup! To my knowledge, few women in the real world were detectives. That was stereotypical, hardboiled, man-work in an age when police bureaus and detective agencies expected women to sit behind desks to type and answer phones.
In 1976, the ABC network Angels revealed the required qualifications for women who wanted to be detectives. First, they had to be young, glamorous, and athletic. It was a bonus that the Angels represented three of the four main “hair groups” – blonde, brunette, and red (gray excluded, of course). Most importantly, female detectives had to have sex appeal and, in Farrah Fawcett’s case, she had to be willing to pose for an iconic poster that could be taped to the bedroom wall of every hormonal, teenage boy in America.
I watched Charlie’s Angels when I was a kid and I can’t remember a single plot line or episode. I only recall that after solving every case, the three svelte, beautiful women gathered around a telephone to chat with their unembodied male boss, Charlie, who congratulated them on a job well done.
As a tender adolescent, I recognized that if I had to emulate Charlie’s Angels to achieve success in a man’s world, I was sure to fail.
The Seventies was a tough decade for girls who were trying to figure out what they wanted to be when they grew up. On one hand, women could finally pick up a newspaper and read job postings for both men and women, but the reality was that, employers still paid women 45% less than men for the same position in any field. The feminist movement, fueled by years of public bra-burning, was finally hitting its stride, testing its strength in pushing for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. But patriarchal society pushed back hard, unwilling to allow women to venture too far from their traditional roles as mothers and homemakers.
Virginia Slims may have tried to shake up tradition with its “you’ve come a long way, baby” catchphrase, but, really, they just wanted to sell cigarettes designed for smaller, delicate female hands.
That’s why I wish I had read P.D. James’ classic 1972 detective novel, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, in my youth. The 22-year old protagonist, Cordelia Gray, is a smart, ambitious, realist. She knows that if her troubled, terminally ill mentor, Bernie, hadn’t killed himself and left her in charge of his barely sustainable detective agency, she would have to rely on her past experience working as a maid, cook, bellhop and nurse to make a living. She also inherently knows that she only gets one shot at this opportunity. Like every working woman today, she understands that she has to work harder and can’t make any mistakes to prove her worth.
Fortunately, on the day of Bernie’s funeral, she gets her first case. A prominent scientist hires her to investigate why his estranged son committed suicide.
Hint: he didn’t, and dogged Cordelia uncovers the crime.
British Author P.D. James was wise enough to acknowledge that, liberated or not, women are judged by fashion, and she makes sure Cordelia retains a sense of style:
If this hot weather continued her Jaeger suit, bought from her savings after much careful thought to see her through almost any interview, would be uncomfortably hot, but she might have to interview the head of a college and the dignified professionalism best exemplified by a suit would be the effect to aim at. She decided to travel in her fawn suede skirt with a short-sleeved jumper and pack jeans and warmer jumpers for any field work. Cordelia enjoyed clothes, enjoyed planning and buying them, a pleasure circumscribed less by poverty than by her obsessive need to be able to pack the whole of her wardrobe into one medium sized suitcase like a refugee perpetually ready for flight.
I can’t explain why this is one of my favorite passages. Maybe it’s because I relate to Cordelia? Then and now, I would trade an evening gown and Farrah Fawcett’s perfectly flipped hair for a fawn suede skirt in a heartbeat.
I don’t care if Cordelia Gray is an Angel or not. She’s my hero.
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman Book cover art: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1451631
Ann K. Howley is the author of the award-winning memoir, Confessions of a Do-Gooder Gone Bad. She writes a monthly feature for Pittsburgh Parent Magazine and her essays have also appeared in publications nationwide, including skirt Magazine, Bicycle Times Magazine, and Pittsburgh Post Gazette. She teaches writing-related classes for CCAC’s community education program. An entertaining and thought-provoking speaker, Ann loves to convince people that their lives are worth writing about.
Confessions of A Do-Gooder Gone Bad is a humorous coming of age memoir about a well-intentioned “problem child” raised by conservative, evangelical Christian parents in Southern California during the Sixties and Seventies. As she naively stumbles through her youth and young adulthood, one misadventure after another, she also struggles to reconcile her ultra-Christian upbringing with women’s liberation, prejudice, protest and poverty during this turbulent era, eventually gaining a different perspective of faith in a world more complicated, funny, terrifying and wonderful than she expected.