Bloody Brilliant Women by Cathy Newman

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

Cathy Newman is one of Channel 4 News’ main studio presenters and specialises in investigative journalism too. Here she brings her feminism and writing talents to bear on, as she puts it in the subtitle of the book, some women that people might not have heard of, bringing their stories to life.

The period she covers runs from the New Women of the 1880s through to the present day. She starts where she does in order to feature the run-up to 1918, the start of the 20th century in many ways and of course the year that (some) women got the vote and were allowed to stand for Parliament. So the first women, including Octavia Hill, who founded the National Trust, are the activists who came just before the suffrage movement, and it goes right up to the #MeToo campaigns and BBC equal pay scandal. In a way, Newman is lucky to have lived in such interesting times, but having Brexit, Trump and #MeToo happen during the years she was writing the book must have been a bit stressful!

Newman states in the introduction that she decided to write the book after reading some British histories which were very male-orientated. She started to research twentieth-century British history and found a huge influence of women in politics, medicine, the law, engineering and the military as well as the arts and education, so both traditionally “male” and “female” spheres. She stresses their involvement in the development of council housing, hospice care and laws and regulations. And indeed she then goes on to feature women from all of these areas. I might argue that some of the political figures are in fact quite well-known, but it was lovely to see a mention of my neighbouring MP, Jess Phillips.

The introduction actually covers a potted history of women in history from mediaeval times. This is by its nature a quick romp through, but the main points are there, followed by a moving tribute to the two women teachers who inspired her early feminist leanings and education, giving her good role models by “exist[interesting] in an atmosphere of quirky female self-sufficiency and, while obviously bluestockings, were practical as well as cerebral”. Once the pre-first-wave activists are covered, we’re into the suffragettes, and Newman does a good job of covering both the main figures and divisions in that area. We then go through the two wars and the effect of women branching out into new jobs in both but being sent back to the domestic sphere when the men returned, then into the modern world via quite a long section on the influence of Margaret Thatcher (I particularly liked the way she reclaims the women who Thatcher kept down but who did well after her power diminished).

Throughout the book, women in similar spheres are brought together, giving an interesting comparison and contrast but also making it clear that these women weren’t isolated, but were parts of movements and networks and uprisings and the like. The technical wartime women were wonderful and I felt like Newman’s real interest might have lain with them and the suffrage campaigners, as her writing really came alive when she was describing them. Having said that, she’s also good on the post-war period, with the spirited architects and writers of the time gleefully highlighted.

Even if you are reasonably well-read and knowledgeable about women’s and social history, you will find something to surprise and educate you: did you know that a woman coined the phrase “Health and safety”, for example? I loved reading about the early female factory inspectors, something I knew nothing about.

Intersectional feminism is covered by the wide range of women of different races and sexualities who are presented to us, and I like the respect shown by naming every woman – and man associated with them – with their full name and identity, not just as an adjunct of another person. Women are presented warts and all, with uncompromising and “difficult” characters like Gertrude Bell or Margaret Thatcher shown in the round.

It’s a bit of a quick romp through 140 years of history and women in 355 pages but is valuable reading for new and old feminists and anyone interested in social history. The book has good notes and an extensive bibliography. I would like to see an index in the final version: I saw a limited edition proof copy.

Liz Dexter would hope she’s a bloody brilliant woman, too. Well, she does her best. And she definitely knows some. Especially Shiny ones. She blogs about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Cathy Newman, Bloody Brilliant Women: Pioneers, Revolutionaries and Geniuses your History Teacher Forgot to Mention (William Collins, 2018). 978=0008241711, 355 pp., paperback

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