Audiobooks are an amazing way to read a book. Having the author (or a good actor) reading their words to you brings a book to life in a completely different way. A prime example of this is Jenni Murphy’s A history of Britain in 21 women.
When I studied history in school, I was constantly frustrated by the fact that there was very little mention of women anywhere in the curriculum. I have a vague recollection of a few pages about the suffragettes, but at this stage, I’m not sure I recall any other context in which women were mentioned. In college, I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Kate Chopin’s The Yellow Wallpaper, but there were a limited number of women studied throughout my English degree and I can’t recall any female theorists being discussed on my Sociology courses. Consequently, it was an absolute delight to download the audio version of Jenni Murphy’s book, A history of Britain in 21 Women and to listen to her talk about women of science, of medicine, of literature, of music, of fashion, and of politics.
This is, as Murphy says herself, a personal selection. Inclusion doesn’t mean that she likes the women, but rather that they objectively have been significant influencers of British culture. Some of the women you will probably expect – Bodicea and Queen Elizabeth I as well as Margaret Thatcher are featured. Less expected was the presence of Constance Markiewicz, the first woman elected to the British parliament. I’m not sure I’d agree with Murphy’s inclusion of Mary Seacole over Florence Nightingale but it was fascinating to read about a woman of whose existence I had been previously unaware. Similarly, I had not known of Caroline Herschel, whose work on comets in the 18th century resulted in her being the first woman invited to join the Royal Astronomical Society. Nor had I, despite studying English in university, heard of the playwright Aphra Benn. In fact, Jenni Murphy has introduced me to quite a number of women who should most definitely appear on the curricula of many school and university courses.
I will note that the introduction to Fanny Burney is not for the faint of heart, while the inclusion of Mary Quant made me appreciate fashion in a new way. Naturally the suffragette and suffragist movements are included and Murphy rightly notes that the challenges to the status quo for which they fought, and the torture endured in terms of force feeding, as well as imprisonment, should make us all determined to use our votes. She also includes politicians such as Barbara Castle who, among other things, won women the right to have their own mortgage without requiring a male guarantor!
Murphy winds up the book by reminding us that we cannot be complacent about the rights which have been won. Tellingly, she talks of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the impact the arrival of the Taliban had for women in Iran, women who had been wearing short skirts and enjoying the same liberties as women in London in the 1970s. Our rights and civil liberties are not set in stone. We must be vigilant in exercising all our rights and ensuring that we retain them.
A fascinating and entertaining read. Definitely one to keep, to share, and to use to inform those who claim that women did nothing noteworthy in history.
The full list of women in the book is:
- Boadicea – Freedom fighter
- Queen Elizabeth I – Monarch
- Aphra Benn – Playwright
- Caroline Herschel – Scientist
- Fanny Burney – Writer
- Mary Wollstonecraft – Writer
- Jane Austen – Writer
- Mary Somerville – Scientist
- Mary Seacole – Nurse
- Ada Lovelace – Computer programmer
- Elizabeth Garret Anderson – Doctor
- Millicent Garret Fawcett – Suffrage activist
- Emmeline Pankhurst – Suffrage activist
- Ethel Smyth – Musician
- Constance Markiewicz – Freedom fighter
- Gwen John – Artist
- Nancy Astor – Politician
- Barbara Castle – Politician
- Margaret Thatcher – Politician
- Mary Quant – Fashion designer
- Nicola Sturgeon – Politician
A history of Britain in 21 Women, by Jenni Murphy is available in audiobook from Audible and in print from Oneworld Publications. 2016. ISBN: 9781780749907