From Boudicca to Nicola Sturgeon, the rainy territory currently known as the UK has had its fair share of women that were ballsy enough to challenge male domination. “A History of Britain in 21 Women” by Jenni Murray examines the achievements of, you guessed, 21 of the individuals who left a mark on British history and society despite being born with what was (and sometimes still is) considered second-class genitalia.
Some of the women portrayed in the book are Oscar-level famous, such as Elizabeth I and Margaret Thatcher, while others are less so, which makes for a very balanced read. Some of the chapters were rather boring because they covered facts most people have read before, but others taught me things I didn’t know.
The complete list comprises Boudicca, Aphra Behn, Elizabeth I (this chapter will also feature Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots), Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, Constance Markievicz, Nancy Astor, Ada Lovelace, Caroline Herschel, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst, Gwen John, Rosalind Franklin, Ethel Smyth, Margaret Thatcher, Nicola Sturgeon, Mary Quant, Barbara Castle and Mary Somerville.
While the subject is highly attractive to anyone interested in history and feminism, I was a little disappointed by the way the way the book was constructed. Firstly, I understand that the choice of personalities to include was a highly personal one for the author, as she mentions in the beginning, but to write something like this and leave out names like Florence Nightingale, Queen Victoria, or George Elliot seems a bit odd.
Next, don’t expect a coherent read – this is not an in-depth analysis of the lives and achievements of these women. It couldn’t be so, taking into account the fact that there are 21 chapters plus introduction and postface and the entire book has 227 pages. The entries read more like blog posts, with brief introductions about the personality and question intertwined with highly personal remarks from the author. You can actually feel how Jenni Murray is star-struck by some of these women, so a couple of entries read like posts on a fan blog.
All in all, it’s not a bad book if you’re interested in learning more about (some of) the women who shaped Britain, but this is a rather basic read. I suppose it would be a good introduction to the subject for high-school level.