A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray

Erich Mayer

Jenni Murray's interest is in the contribution women have made to Britain and to the world.
A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray

Book cover image: A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray via Oneworld Publications.

Jenni Murray has presented the BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour for many years. In that role she has interviewed many successful women. But her interest in the contribution women have made to Britain and to the world springs not only from those interviews but from noticing from a young age how frequently women achievers were omitted from history.

Murray acknowledges that her chosen 21 women represents a very small and personal selection drawn from the millions of women (mostly unknown) who have influenced the history of Britain. Her reasons for inclusion and omission are convincing. However, she favours women who had to fight hard to achieve a position of influence over those who, like Queen Elizabeth II, inherited a position of power. Thus Queen Elizabeth I is included not only because of what she managed to achieve but because of the odds she had to overcome to become a monarch in the first place. For similar reasons, Mary Seacole, rather than Florence Nightingale, is included as a pioneering nurse because Seacole had none of Nightingale’s wealth or social advantages.

The 21 women featured in this book range from Queen Boadicea who died around 60 CE to the present day’s Nicola Sturgeon. What they have in common is that somehow they all managed to get a good education although how this was acquired, or fought for, differs greatly from individual to individual. In Boadicea’s case, she came from a society in which men and women enjoyed equal rights. In the case of Elizabeth I, she had a first-class private education, initially provided by a well-educated governess and later by an excellent tutor.

What most of these 21 women also have in common is that they share with the author a passionate belief in the emancipation of women. But it is not clear from Murray’s chapter on Margaret Thatcher whether that is so in her case. Thatcher, after all, did little to advance women in politics. Rather, her undeniable political successes earned her a selection in this book in spite of Murray’s view that by the late 1980s Thatcher had begun to believe much of her own publicity regardless of the truth, claiming credit for both the end of Cold War and the re-unification of Germany, for example.

Each chapter in the book is devoted to a biography of one of the women and is introduced with a black-and-white portrait by Peter Locke and an apposite quotation selected by the author. In the chapter about the scientist Mary Sommerville, Murray quotes words Sommerville penned towards the end of her long life: ‘Age has not abated my zeal for the emancipation of my sex from the unreasonable prejudice too prevalent in Great Britain against a literary and scientific education for women.'

But not only scientists and politicians are included in the book – there are also chapters on composer Ethel Smyth, artist Gwen John, novelist Jane Austen and fashion designer, Mary Quant.

Reading these 21 biographies is to glimpse greatness and to thirst for more. What these women have achieved in spite of almost insurmountable obstacles is remarkable. Because of them, many of those obstacles have gone, although unfortunately some still remain.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

A History of Britain in 21 Women
A Personal Selection
By Jenni Murray

Pages: 288
Subject: History
Imprint: Oneworld
Oneworld Publications 2016

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog humblecomment.info