A History of Britain in 21 Women

‘History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilites of men’.

That somewhat acerbic line spoken by Mrs Lintott in The History Boys (though ultimately written by a man), rang in my head for some time when I first heard it because it represents a very simple yet unsurpassable problem with our record of history: it is male-dominated both in terms of the figures studied and as a profession. The reason for this is complicated and not entirely insidious, but it does not excuse the fact. Thankfully there is now an increasing stream of historical content presented by women focusing on female historical figures, and as someone who enjoys history I have found the recent output refreshing and intriguing.

Jenni Murray introduces the reader to the names and causes of some well-known but largely overlooked female historical figures and I found it impossible to ignore the huge impact these women have had on British society across an array of subject areas.

The author’s chosen subjects cross the spectrum from science to art and of course, many had prominent roles in the political and societal struggles for gender equality. Murray provides context via her own personal insight, exploration and experiences and how, as a girl growing up in the 1950s, she faced the still-prominent Victorian dogma of a woman’s place in society and all that entailed. Through her profiles, the author shows how she was able to throw off the expectations placed on her and use our very own British historical figures to dispel the faulty thinking behind societal prejudice.

Some might view this book and the wider cause of ‘female-focused’ history as unnecessary, thinking there is little need to read it – that the cause of gender equality is of no concern because ‘we are all equal now’. Yet lately it seems the news is full of stories that make you wonder whether some of the progress made in western society over the last two-hundred years was real and whether the historical lessons learned by those who fought for progress has faded, becoming little more than historical footnotes. The history of equality and inequality between the genders (and of equality for many other causes besides) must be kept alive and we do well to remember that for all the progress made in Britain we are still an imperfect society.

Perhaps most poignantly, Jenni Murray writes in her afterword how much of the progress made by these individuals may regress if we aren’t careful. Regression can only really happen when historical lessons are forgotten and causes are treated with apathy, yet those who see the benefit of social progress in Britain will agree with the author’s parting sentiment: remember those who fought and won the freedoms that you have now and recognise what is still left to do, but be on your guard as those hard-fought gains can be lost too.

By Michael Crowther, Paralegal in the Employment Unit at Raworths.

Jenni Murray is appearing at Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival on Saturday 21st October at 5:00pm. Find out more and book now.