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Book Review: A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray

I’m one of those people who thinks a great family summer holiday has to involve a hefty dose of history and culture as well as ice cream and playparks. This year, however, I’m having to look for alternatives to many of our usual activities and we’re all finding ourselves reading more than ever before.

As part of my summer plans, I’m making a concerted effort to learn more about the women who have shaped our country – and those who continue to do so. Jenni Murray’s concise, deftly written book has proved to be a wonderful starting point.

Radio 4 favourite Jenni provides lively potted histories of a very personal selection of women who she says ‘made me realise that there is more to being a woman than making life comfortable for the men around me.’ From famous names – Boadicea, Jane Austen, Mary Quant - to the less well-known – playwright Aphra Behn, Scottish science writer Mary Sommerville, artist Gwen John – Jenni tells their stories in an accessible yet insightful way.

Bringing the book close to home from a professional point of view, there’s a fascinating section in the chapter on Emmeline Pankhurst on the importance the suffragette movement placed on publicity, promotion and brand identity: a memorable motto – ‘Deeds not Words’ which differentiated them from the suffragists who shunned direct action; a carefully thought out colour palette of purple, white and green symbolising dignity, purity and hope; and engaging public speakers who could face a crowd and ‘make ‘em laugh, make’em cry, make ‘em think.’

The book closes with a chapter on a figure who most of us hear from on a daily basis right now: Nicola Sturgeon. Jenni focuses on the First Minster’s determination, focus and ability to develop the skills she needs to deliver the changes she wants to see, rather than on her political stance. It’s a fitting end to a thoroughly enjoyable canter through the lives of some of Britain’s female history-makers.

Am I better informed now about the women who have shaped our history? Absolutely. Do I want to know more? Definitely – so I’ve lined up Jenni Murray’s international take on the issue - ‘A History of the World in 21 Women’. I’m looking forward to delving into it – hopefully while relaxing in the sun with an ice cream in the other hand.


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