Jenni Murray – A History of Britain in 21 Women

Refuting Thomas Carlyle’s famous line from 1840 that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’ and citing Steve Biddulph’s claim that it was men who built planes, railways, cars, ships, hospitals and medicines and ‘made it all happen’ as ‘rubbish!’ Jenni Murray reveals her cast of those who have inspired her own life and that of millions of people – male and female.

The lives of twenty-one women are the subject matter of this collection of vignettes, spanning the political, social, scientific, religious and artistic spheres. What they all have in common is guts, pushing boundaries and challenging convention to influence change. Whilst it’s clearly not exhaustive, in a world where existing history books are very much full of the stories of men, it’s an excellent start. The diverse assortment can only ever be a hint and the richness of female radicals and renegades who have helped shape today.

Murray stresses that the choices are very much personal, and that many people would not place Elizabeth I, Mary Wollstonecraft, Emmeline Pankhurst, Mary Somerville and Margaret Thatcher alongside Mary Quant for example. Nicola Sturgeon is also placed in the list, an influential political actor who still has the potential to deliver impact. She reads from the diary of Fanny Burney and her vividly described mastectomy carried out without anaesthetic in relation to her own experience of cancer, whilst in happier notes talks of the personal connection with Mary Woolstoncraft, her edition of The Vindication of the Rights of Woman being one of few objects that she would rescue from a burning building, and how it was at the age of ten that she discovered ‘Boadicea, and she became the first woman to make me realise that the designated future of a girl born in 1950 – to be sweet, domesticated, undemanding and super feminine – was not necessarily the case.’

It’s educational of course. It was not until 1929 for example that women were regonised as ‘persons’ despite achieving limited suffrage in 1918 (Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst, Ethel Smyth and Constance Markievicz are all subjects of chapters); and some,  such as that I could have studied French and drama for three years without anyone mentioning that Aphra Behn, the first woman to earn her living writing plays, or astronomer Caroline Herschel were completely new to me. I’m not sure that I’d prefer any other teacher.

An avid listener of BBC Woman’s Hour, it was a pleasure to discover that Murray narrates the audiobook, and listening to her about women was like listening to David Attenborough explain the natural world – wonderful! A storyteller by nature, she reveals both her own curiosity and the fascinating but unfamiliar tales of these women. The words equality, liberation and opportunity are still ones that act as barriers for many females both in our own society and around the world, despite the progress that has been made.

First published on New London Writers.

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