Eva Jordan reviews… A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray ‏

Eva Jordan reviews A History of Britain in 21 Women - Post Header

Published by Oneworld Publications

This year marks the  100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the UK.  Also, on March 8th, it was International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, observed annually since the early 1900s. I, therefore, thought it appropriate to review a book that was both fitting and relevant to both these historic events.

A History of Britain in 21 Women is written by Dame Jenni Murray; probably best known as Radio 4’s presenter of Women’s Hour and whom I had the very great pleasure of meeting last year. These short biographies are a personal selection chosen by Murray to present the history of Britain through the lives of twenty-one women, whose lives embodied hope and change, who refused to surrender to established laws of society, and, who still have the power to inspire us today.

In the introduction, Murray, born in 1950, states that growing up “the role of a woman was to learn how to be a good wife and mother, do the cooking and cleaning and nurture those her around her.” She quotes Thomas Carlyle, circa 1840, who said ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men,’ and as a young girl growing up in Barnsley in the 1950s and ‘60s that’s pretty much what Murray believed. However, it was education that made her question the expectations placed on women, and after attending a wonderful girls’ school she began to discover many women that had influenced history and also challenged the assumption that a woman’s place was in the home.

Murray writes about, to name but a few; Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni tribe who fought bravely against the Romans to preserve a social structure that had been practised by, and was so important to the women of the tribes of Britain, namely equality; Aphra Behn, the first English woman playwright to earn her living by her pen; Astronomer Caroline Herschel, after whom a crater on the moon is named; And, computing pioneer Ada Lovelace. We are also given an insight into the courageous account of writer Fanny Burney (1752-1840) entitled ‘Account from Paris of a terrible Operation – 1812, who, when she discovered she had breast cancer and under the insistence of specialist surgeons, underwent one of the first recorded mastectomies at a time when there was no effective anaesthetic – ouch! She was 59 years old at the time and went on to live until the ripe old age of 88!

Written as biographies in small chunks, A History of Britain in 21 Women is well researched, informative and entertaining. Dedicated to “all the young people who need to know” it is an illuminating, easy read offering a great deal to both women and men of all ages. However some of Murray’s omissions were interesting and there was one woman in particular whom I felt wasn’t deserving of a place amongst such great individuals – but that’s purely politics. Nonetheless, a thought-provoking read finishing with a timely reminder that we still have a way to go and the fight for gender parity must continue.

 

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#PressforProgress – Still A Long Way To Go

 

“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”

–Mary Wollstonecraft

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Image: Pixabay

Today, Thursday 8th March 2018, is International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the social, political, cultural, and economic achievements of women. It is also a day that marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. The call to action this year is #PressforProgress and with global activism for women’s equality fuelled by movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp momentum is particularly strong this year. 2018 also marks the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the UK. So, a century on, how are we doing?

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Image: Pixabay

Sadly, the findings of the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report (International Women’s Day website) suggest gender parity is still over 200 years away. Disheartening to say the least. Further research suggests that globally, one in three women suffer from gender-based violence, sixty-two million girls, annually, are denied access to education, and women in the workplace still suffer in terms of pay and representation. Much has also been written about the inequality female writers still face in the writing and publishing world. As a female writer myself, I wanted to explore this a bit further.

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Image: Pixabay

In terms of reviews, literary prizes, and senior positions within publishing houses, many are still being awarded to men above women. Even World Book Night (The Guardian) shows that the picks of the last 5 years have been made up of 64 male versus 36 female authors. And author Nicola Griffith shows gender bias in her study, published in May 2015, of prizewinning books both here and across the pond, broken down by the gender of their protagonists. Her findings suggest that in the last 15 years, 12 of the Booker-winning novels have had male protagonists, two have had female protagonists, and one has had both male and female protagonists. The Booker fared better than the Pulitzer, which has had no female protagonist among its 15 winning books. I was also disappointed to find in a study carried out by The Guardian in August 2016, articles written by women, irrespective of their content or subject matter, attract more abuse and dismissive trolling than those written by men.

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Aleesah Darlison (Writers Edit) attributes continued gender discrimination to “tradition and possibly even culture… It’s incredibly difficult to change centuries-old thinking, but women are continually striving to move forward.” 

Whereas some writers like Christine Piper (Writers Edit), author and winner of The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for After Darkness suggests that the confines of professional limitations based on gender are sometimes self-imposed and said “Like many women, I’ve been guilty of self-sabotage: doubting my ability, playing down my talents, taking rejections personally, and being shy about pursuing opportunities. Men are socialised to be confident and champion their abilities (but of course not all male writers are like this), while women are not – if a woman does do those things she’s often seen as arrogant or a ‘tall poppy’.”

However, it’s not all bad news, women are making advances. I only have to look at my daughter to see the opportunities available to her compared to my mother who, born in 1950, was paid half the wage of a man when she first started working. Nonetheless, let’s not get complacent, continue to unite, support one another and #PressforProgress for women.

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Image: Pixabay