A History of Britain in 21 Women

by Jenni Murray, Oneworld, £16.99

Celebrated for presenting Woman’s Hour for nearly 30 years, Jenni Murray has compiled a list of the 21 women who she thinks have made a significant contribution to the country. As befits a keen feminist, they include several suffragette types, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Millicent Garret Fawcett, as well as pioneers in science, such as Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville. There are also political figures such as Margaret Thatcher and Nicola Sturgeon.

What is missing from this list are instances of the “feminine genius”, as St John Paul II’s phrase has it – that is, women such as St Margaret Clitherow or the nurse Edith Cavell, whose inspiring lives shine for their moral and spiritual qualities rather than their intellectual or political achievements.

So the book has a rather monotonous agenda: to show how certain women fought for equality with men in the public sphere. I have no doubt that several of these women were brave, clever and determined, and often slighted in the male-dominated society of the time, but Murray generally selects women who fit her narrative rather than kindle the imagination.

I would have left out Boadicea, about whom we know almost nothing. But I am glad to see Gwen John included – a much finer painter than her more famous brother, Augustus. Also Jane Austen, despite her novels reflecting the traditional values that Murray deplores, and Fanny Burney, whose gripping description of enduring a mastectomy in Paris in 1812, with only a small glass of wine to fortify her for the operation, is well worth including.

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