World-chang­ers

DR SARAH CROOK enjoys a book that of­fers deftly drawn sketches of women who shaped im­por­tant events

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews - Dr Sarah Crook is a lec­turer in the so­cial and cultural history of mod­ern Europe at Swansea Univer­sity

A History of the World in 21 Women: A Per­sonal Se­lec­tion by Jenni Mur­ray Oneworld, 304 pages, £16.99

Thomas Car­lyle, the 19th-cen­tury Scot­tish his­to­rian and philoso­pher, ar­gued that “the history of the world is but the bi­og­ra­phy of great men”. In this charm­ing ex­plo­ration of the history of the world through the lives of 21 women, Jenni Mur­ray sets out to dis­prove this claim. Her se­lec­tion of women is pleas­ingly var­ied, cov­er­ing Be­nazir Bhutto, Joan of Arc, Artemisia Gen­tileschi, Pro­fes­sor Wan­gari Maathai, Coco Chanel, Frida Kahlo, Toni Mor­ri­son, Sir­i­mavo Ban­daranaike, and Hil­lary Clin­ton, among oth­ers. There is lit­tle here that read­ers of bi­ogra­phies or reg­u­lar view­ers of his­tor­i­cal doc­u­men­taries will be sur­prised by or find par­tic­u­larly new, but the strength of the col­lec­tion lies in Mur­ray’s re­laxed and in­ti­mate style. There are some re­veal­ing per­sonal anec­dotes: Hil­lary Clin­ton re­turn­ing Shirley Wil­liams’s hand­bag mid- Woman’s Hour in­ter­view; Mar­garet At­wood telling Mur­ray that “women don’t have to be gooder”.

Sev­eral re­cur­ring themes emerge in the sto­ries that Mur­ray tells. Women who, in the face of misog­yny, racism, poverty and ad­ver­sity, have over­come seem­ingly in­sur­mount­able ob­sta­cles, driven by de­ter­mi­na­tion and vi­sion; women who had po­si­tions of sig­nif­i­cant author­ity and ex­per­tise foisted upon them, and who did not shy away from these chal­lenges; women who ne­go­ti­ated the tricky arena of re­la­tion­ships with men who sought to en­gi­neer or take credit for their tal­ent, or men who showed dis­com­fort in prox­im­ity to women’s gifts and hard work. Through­out, the sto­ries em­pha­sise the en­dur­ing im­por­tance of ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion.

Cu­ri­ous read­ers will want to look fur­ther into some of the events Mur­ray

touches upon. For ex­am­ple, her com­ment on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Is­abella of Castile and the chang­ing rules of chess should be fol­lowed by read­ing Mar­i­lyn Yalom’s Birth of the Chess Queen: A History.

Ul­ti­mately, Mur­ray’s book is not a man­i­festo, but rather a tes­ta­ment to the achieve­ments, and the com­pli­cated lega­cies, of ex­tra­or­di­nary women. While these sto­ries need retelling, I also hope read­ers re­tain an in­ter­est in the sto­ries of ‘or­di­nary’ women. Mean­time, the en­thu­si­asm for “the history of the world in…” books con­tin­ues un­abated, and this vol­ume will make a worth­while ad­di­tion to col­lec­tors’ shelves.

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