In her introduction, Murray points out that ‘In November 2015, it was proposed that feminism should be cut from the Politics A-level syllabus. The suffragette movement was to be squeezed into a section on ‘pressure groups’’. True, we have recently had a flurry of new texts, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls being one of the most successful, and films, Hidden Figures being another I am keen to catch up on, which seek to highlight women’s achievements perhaps previously overlooked. But, and here’s the point, there are so many other women who have made significant contributions and yet have not had nearly as much airtime as their male counterparts. Jenni Murray’s History is an attempt to both highlight and go some way to redress this imbalance. And for that, in spite of one or two choices I would question, this is an excellent book.
Some of the women selected are perhaps to be expected in such a collection: Boadicea (Murray decides to stick with the name she was taught as a child) and Emmeline Pankhurst are positively mandatory figures for any such work. However, even when she’s dealing with the few very well-known figures, Murray comes to each biography with her distinctive voice, one which records their foibles as well as their ambitions and sacrifices. Some of her other choices were new to me – Caroline Herschel, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Ethel Smyth – and I am so glad that Murray seems to have consciously looked to all fields in making her selection.
I also liked the overall structure of the book, moving as it does from Boadicea onwards through time, taking in women from all four countries of Britain. Her chronological structure did cause me problems late on because I wasn’t convinced by her chapter on Nicola Sturgeon (I have nothing against the politician at all – I’m just not sure we know what her legacy will be yet) and because it’s hard to see Thatcher as an unproblematic choice, given her track record in supporting other women. However, it did remind me that many of the women who precede her might also have been regarded as divisive, rightly or wrongly, in their lifetimes. And, as Murray points out early on, they are her choices.
One thing I wasn’t expecting when I picked up the book was how emotional I would feel as I read about these women’s lives. I had come across Fanny Burney’s novels at university but the details of her life, particularly towards the end, moved me immensely (I should also add here that the extracts from her diary detailing her mastectomy without anaesthetic had me physically squirming – and feeling very grateful to be alive in this century).
Whatever their political leanings or methods of achieving their ambitions, I was left with a profound sense of gratitude to the majority of the women featured here. There’s no doubt that sacrifices were made, and there’s no doubt that my life is easier in a practical way because of some of these women. There is also no doubt that all of these women’s stories prove that they have a rightful place on syllabuses, in textbooks and in our national narrative. Jenni Murray’s book is both wonderfully illuminating and timely.