BBC 4 Presenter Jenni Murray, who has run Women’s Hour since the late 1980s, has recently channelled her feminist persona within a new literary medium, A History of Britain in 21 Women.
Thomas Carlyle once claimed “the history of the world is but the biography of great men”. Murray has put this theory to bed in her new book, which places Bodicea, Elizabeth I, Emmeline Pankhurst and Nicola Sturgeon all under one brilliant umbrella. With household names and those less familiar, Murray dives into the fascinating history of 21 women, all of whom paved the way in Britain for other women, yes, but also for the country and the world.
As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Murray specifically hand-picked each woman, leading to an array of inspirational females in the arts, sciences and politics. Her choices are wholly personal, which she makes clear reference to, and it could therefore be missing certain individuals or adding unnecessary stories for different readers. However, for me it was an opportunity to learn about women I had not yet known.
I myself am a woman in politics, but I must bashfully admit many of the women described were completely unknown to me, despite the fact that each individual has made an unconscious impact on my life. Murray has introduced to me Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Ethel Smyth; the brilliance of the book lies in these introductions.
The book is set out in twenty-one chapters, each belonging to a specific woman. Murray’s controversial pick of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for chapter nineteen stumped me for a while, as I wasn’t sure she belonged in such a pro-female manifesto, having neglected to employ more than one other woman to her Cabinet over her 11-year premiership. However, despite the debate on whether Thatcher was an advocate for women’s rights, she was undoubtedly a woman who defines British history. Murray has always had an act for openly tackling controversy, which is in part what makes herself and her book so brilliant.
The only downfall of the book was chapters often missed a depth of history and background, which would have aided each women’s story a little further. But having said this, part of its literary brilliance is its ‘snapshot’ feel, which enables an easy, quick and enjoyable read.
For anyone – of any gender – who would like to learn a little more about British history through the eyes of great individuals, this book is a must.
Words by Alexandra Goodwin