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