Yesterday’s post looked at the life of Major Denis Arnold who served valiantly during the Second World War.
He, along with Baroness Platt of Writtle, today’s profile, and many others are what Britons refer to with regret as ‘a vanishing breed’. The Telegraph carries their obituaries, beautifully written and a pleasure to read.
Whilst Major Arnold was stationed in India and Burma, Beryl Catherine Myatt had just begun working for the male-dominated Hawker Aircraft.
Young Beryl’s father was an accountant. The family lived in Southend, Essex. Beryl became a Girl Guide and said that the Guide Promise was a principal mainstay in her life:
To do my best, to do my duty to God and the King and to help other people at all times.
Beryl was an exceptional student, the type meant to attend university. However, parents at the time — especially fathers — felt that higher education would be wasted on future mothers and homemakers. (The same was true for my late mother-in-law who deeply regretted not having been allowed this opportunity.)
One of Beryl’s teachers, the mathematics mistress, persuaded her mother that the girl should apply to Cambridge. Beryl later read that the university was looking for engineering students to help with the war effort. She attended Girton College and was one of five women reading Mechanical Sciences.
She graduated in 1943. Hawker Aircraft took her on as an aeronautical engineer:
preparing flight reports for Typhoon, Tempest and Fury fighter bombers. She often took control when her boss was away — “People would ring up and say ‘I want to know the cylinder head temperature of the Centaurus engine’. I’d rattle them off. There would be a deathly hush at the other end of the line and then they’d say, ‘How do you know?’ They assumed that if you were a woman you couldn’t be an engineer.”
Her obituary page has a Hawker employee photograph; she looks to be the only woman in a sea of men!
After the war, she left Hawker to work at British European Airways. She married Stewart Platt, a textile manufacturer, in 1949, to concentrate on marriage, home and family.
When her children were of school age, Mrs Platt devoted her spare time to volunteer activities in Essex. She started a young wives group in Writtle, Essex, where she and her family lived.
During this time, she began thinking of ways women could work outside the home without sacrificing family life. However, she would have to wait another quarter of a century before she could help to influence government policy in this regard.
In 1959, the local Conservative Party association asked her to stand as a candidate for the local council. She was duly elected and served in local government for several years. Between 1965 and 1985, she served on the Essex County Council.
In 1978, she was appointed a CBE — Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – and in 1981 was created a life peer, Baroness Platt of Writtle. (For my overseas readers: this put her in the House of Lords, the other parliamentary house.)
In 1983 — when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister — she was appointed chairman of Britain’s Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) and began earning a salary for the first time in decades.
Platt’s idea of feminism differed dramatically to the flavour of that time and ours. She saw women’s opportunities through the lens of someone who had to fight her way up in a male-dominated atmosphere. (Many years ago I saw a television interview of a woman in New York who did the same in the 1950s on Wall Street. She abhorred what passed for feminism.)
The Telegraph describes Platt’s job in the EOC as follows:
Brisk, kindly and bursting with good intentions, as chairman of one of Westminster’s least-loved quangos Lady Platt found herself cast as piggy-in-the-middle in the equality debate. “There are male chauvinists on one side, militant feminists on the other and me on a high wire in the middle,” she said. She was “passionately interested” in job-sharing, flexi-time and helping married woman to get back into the mainstream, but felt that this was better achieved voluntarily by employers than imposed by government.
So while she was lukewarm on some issues dear to the feminist heart, such as state-funded nurseries, and dismissed the EOC-backed case of two women against the Fleet Street hostelry El Vino [infamous haunt for male journalists] as “rather frivolous”, she was delighted when, for example, a woman crane driver won damages for victimisation at work: “That’s the sort of thing that will make employers think twice. It’s that, and not more legislation, that will bring about real equality in the end.”
Baroness Platt retired in 1988. Her great disappointment was that more young women were not enrolling in engineering courses at university. She blamed this on a cultural and educational bias towards feminine subjects for girls.
She lived and died a faithful Anglican, suggesting:
if people took to heart God’s commandment to love Him and love thy neighbour, “we should all be living in a very much happier and better community”.
How true. Would that we had more women like Baroness Platt today. A vanishing breed, indeed.