Ever since the tremendous success of Radio 4's History of the World in 100 Objects there have been numerous iterations of this format and Jenni Murray came to the Sheldonian this afternoon to discuss her contribution to the genre – A History of Britain in 21 Women. Why 21 she was asked during the Q&A at the end of the discussion: apparently she would have liked more and her publisher less and this was the compromise number they agreed on. And indeed there is a strong sense of pragmatism running throughout Jenni's commentary on her book, as well as a sense of family and the personal experiences which led her to these choices. These were initially put in context with a reading from the book's introduction which focus was to challenge and in some way redress Thomas Carlyle's Great Man Theory: “the history of the world is but the biography of great men".
Jenni's first chosen woman is Boudica – a figure she was led to and impressed by on her first trip to London as a child. Statues are a theme in the book's narrative from the memorial to Elizabeth I, another of Jenni's 21 women, to the recent announcement that there is to be a statue to honour Millicent Fawcett in London. Returning to Boudica was Jenni Murray's first clear sign that the female experience wasn't all domestic bliss, and given the example of Boudica's fight against the Roman Empire, other women could and should stand up and break the mould of their restrictive roles.
Jenni Murray revealed that as a teenager she had begun a lifelong obsession with Elizabeth I and this started with the intrigue surrounding the queen's tomb in Westminster Abbey where she is buried with her sister, 'Bloody' Mary, and opposite her arch-enemy, Mary Queen of Scots. Murray interprets some of this in the context of Elizabeth's successor James I and assigns this division as being between the barren and the fecund and perceives this as reinforcing women's role as child-bearers and negating their roles as rulers. She then went on to recognise the significance of Elizabeth I's father Henry VIII in her life and then discussed some of the other women in her book or whom she admired but had not made the cut who were greatly influenced and supported (unlike Elizabeth) by their fathers: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst and Ethel Smyth who wrote 'The March of the Women' the suffragette's anthem which legend has she conducted with her toothbrush through the bars in her cell at Holloway.
Jenni then went on to discuss the very personal reasons behind her choice of Fanny Burney, whom she did not consider a great novelist but she had been deeply moved by her great diaries and letters in which she had discussed in painful detail her experience of breast cancer and having a mastectomy in 1812. She has also included Mary Wollstonecraft, who was not supported by her bully of a father, and who lacks recognition today partly due to the revelatory nature of her husband Godwin's memoir, yet her books are a clear vindication of the rights of women much of which is still relevant today.
It was clear from the discussion that Jenni Murray is using the lives of these 21 women as a means to reflect on her own life. The wry humour she filters these reflections through was obvious when discussing her inclusion of Mary Quant and the effects of the 'gender quake' of the 1960s in describing her own maternally imposed tweed, twinset and pearls look with her aspiration to wear short skirts and eyeliner and be like her hero Joan Baez. She then moved on from the politics of gender in the 1960s to more recent manifestations: Margaret Thatcher and Hilary Clinton and from Jenni Murray's tales, it was apparent that both clearly understand the importance of the handbag; there was much amusement when Jenni recounted asking Margaret Thatcher what it was like to be a female PM to which she answered “I am not a woman Prime Minister. I am Prime Minister".
Through the progression of women Jenni Murray has selected we can see a common thread of strong, determined women challenging the norms and structures of their society and this is very much a reflection of Ms Murray's own personality and feminist commitment. Murray felt there were still many challenges facing women and much work to be done to achieve equality, currently she felt not least of which was enabling fathers to fully participate in raising their children.
The discussion was met with rapturous applause from a predominately white, female audience and indeed the lone man who had the temerity to ask a question was gently mocked. There was some of the feeling of a gossip around the kitchen table about the discussion, as I am sure many of the audience regularly have tea and biscuits with Jenni Murray weekday mornings and consider her a friend, with foibles, fantasies and fanaticisms but ultimately 'one of us'. And not only are her daily dulcet tones welcome in our homes I am sure her views of the lives of the 21 women she explores in her book will be discussed and dissected around the kitchen table and become part of our history too.