Book Review: Bloody Brilliant Women.

BloodybrillwomenMark recently bought Freya the children’s book, Fantastically Great Women Who Made History, written by Kate Pankhurst.

After reading it with her I remember thinking two things ‘yay for Mark’ and ‘I wish there was something like this for adults’.

BEHOLD, Bloody Brilliant Women.

Journalist and presenter Cathy Newman has plugged a gap in the market and I, for one, am incredibly grateful.

I can’t remember learning about any women in my humanities lessons, although I’m sure there were some – it was 30ish years ago and my memory isn’t what it was.

This book goes further, though, not just highlighting already well known women in Britain but “…the pioneers, revolutionaries and geniuses your history teacher forgot to mention”.

It’s a lively book that isn’t just readable but relatable. It’s also funny in places and definitely makes you think. Suggesting the Bayeux Tapestry could be a precursor to the Daily Mail’s ‘side bar of shame’ is just one example.

It reminds me of a book version of the fantastic programmes by Lucy Worsley or Kate Williams which are as engrossing as they are engaging. In fact, I hope it can somehow be made into a tele series. We need it.

Here’s the blurb:

A fresh, opinionated history of all the brilliant women you should have learned about in school but didn’t.

In this freewheeling history of modern Britain, Cathy Newman writes about the pioneering women who defied the odds to make careers for themselves and alter the course of modern history; women who achieved what they achieved while dismantling hostile, entrenched views about their place in society.

Their role in transforming Britain is fundamental, far greater than has generally been acknowledged, and not just in the arts or education but in fields like medicine, politics, law, engineering and the military.

While a few of the women in this book are now household names, many have faded into oblivion, their personal and collective achievements mere footnotes in history. We know of Emmeline Pankhurst, Vera Brittain, Marie Stopes and Beatrice Webb. But who remembers engineer and motorbike racer Beatrice Shilling, whose ingenious device for the Spitfires’ Rolls-Royce Merlin fixed an often-fatal flaw, allowing the RAF’s planes to beat the German in the Battle of Britain? Or Dorothy Lawrence, the journalist who achieved her ambition to become a WW1 correspondent by pretending to be a man? And developmental biologist Anne McLaren, whose work in genetics paved the way for in vitro fertilisation?

Were it not for women, significant features of modern Britain like council housing, municipal swimming pools and humane laws relating to property ownership, child custody and divorce wouldn’t exist in quite the same way. Women’s drive and talent for utopian thinking created new social and legislative agendas. The women in these pages blazed a trail from the 1918 Representation of the People Act – which allowed some women to vote – through to Margaret Thatcher’s ousting from Downing Street.

Blending meticulous research with information gleaned from memoirs, diaries, letters, novels and other secondary sources, Bloody Brilliant Women uses the stories of some extraordinary lives to tell the tale of 20th and 21st century Britain. It is a history for women and men. A history for our times.

Maybe, because I had been reading Freya’s book, I assumed it would take a similar format; an extended look at one woman at a time. That’s not the case. The eight chapters are on broad themes such as education, women between the wars and a final one bringing things up to the present.

Once I had worked out that I wasn’t just reading a really long introduction, it was fine, possibly even better because it features many, many more bloody brilliant women – although it did require a higher level of concentration than the hour before bed afforded.

As I was reading this book, I felt the might of their power behind me and, as a result, I felt empowered. I definitely think this should be required reading for high school students, of both sexes.

I will be getting a paper copy for Freya’s book shelf because, even if history lessons have improved since my day, I think it will be essential reading when she’s older.

Format: Kindle.

Price: £9.99.

My rating: Four and a half stars.

With thanks to Harper Collins UK/William Collins for the ARC (via NetGalley) in return for an honest review.

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