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.