Jenni Murray's A History of Britain in 21 Women leaves out some of our most important female pioneers
By Wednesday America may have elected its first woman president. In the UK we now have the second woman prime minister. Western society seems to be increasingly woman-dominated, a view heartily endorsed by Jenni Murray, well-known to listeners of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, which she has presented for almost 30 years.
She has recently published A History of Britain in 21 Women and, as you would expect, her list is strong on educational and political pioneers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Emmeline Pankhurst, Mary Somerville and Margaret Thatcher, but weak on what I would describe as “women of the spirit” (a subtle difference from the “women of spirit” that Murray promotes).
If I were compiling a similar list, I would include St Margaret Clitherow (Murray’s list doesn’t have any Catholics), not only because she was prepared to die a horrible death for her faith but because she is also a wonderful example of a wife and a mother, beloved by all the townspeople of York. This doesn’t excite Murray’s interest; equality with men is her battle-cry. Yet great courageous wives and mothers must surely be part of our island story?
I would also include Edith Cavell, the brave Anglican nurse, shot by a German firing squad in Brussels in 1915 for helping wounded British soldiers during WW1. She also made the profoundly spiritual statement “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone” – the kind of sentiment that a country needs as part of its deeper and nobler history, than mere worldly achievement.
I would also ditch Boadicea and Mary Seacole (surely it is perverse for Murray to include her rather than Florence Nightingale who, unlike Seacole, made a significant contribution to her country’s wellbeing), Nancy Astor (like Seacole, an ardent self-promoter), Mary Quant and Nicola Sturgeon.
In their place, alongside the two women I have listed above, I would include Agatha Christie, a pioneer of crime fiction who has given pleasure to millions; Beatrix Potter, who apart from her charming, timeless stories, helped preserve swathes of the Lake District for the country; Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children; Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker and prison reformer; and possibly even Gertrude Bell, one of a line of gifted, independent-minded women travellers that all foreigners would recognise.
Interestingly, Murray does include Jane Austen in her list – even though she was clearly not an early suffragette like Wollstonecraft. Like Shakespeare, she was interested in the complementary natures of men and women rather than their “equality”.