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Cathy Newman

Bloody Brilliant Women – The Pioneers, Revolutionaries and Geniuses your History Teacher Forgot to Mention

Cathy Newman (a broadcast journalist at Channel 4 news) has produced a fascinating and engaging book on brilliant women in Britain from around 1880 to the present day.She considers the glaring lack of women appearing in the history books she enjoyed reading,andexplores the history that your teachers forgot to mention. She argues that women were more independent in 800 than they were as the subservient home makersof 1800,whose education was limited to polite accomplishments. Women in politics, medicine, andscience were seen as unseemly.

We are given a series of case studies underlining the contribution made by remarkable women in key British institutions. Each chapter throws up interesting facts and draws parallels betweenpast and present.In the field of medicine, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in 1870 went through extraordinary hoops to obtain a medical degree and eventually founded the New Hospital for Women in London. Marie Stopes is well known for her writings on birth control although her views on eugenics come as a shock. In industry, Clementine Black and Catherine Booth were trade union pioneers, improving working condition for the match girls working for Bryant and May. In 1922, a study of the weaving industry gives us a stark example of deplorable conditions; the dust inhaled by women spinning silk, caused workers to cough up silk worms. The ‘National Trust’, registered in 1895, grew out of the work on poor housing by the philanthropist Octavia Hill. Maud Pember Reeves established the Fabian Women’s Group alongside Beatrice Webb and was involved in the Royal Commission considering Poor Law Reform and severalof its suggestions came to pass i.e. free school dinners, free health clinics and child benefit.In politics, in the 1860s the womens’suffrage movement emerged, fighting for theelectoralfranchise (the Pankhurstsbeing prominent).

War empowered women, especially the 1914-18 war. Nurse Edith Cavell became a symbol of womanly heroism, while Gertrude Bell, working for the War Office, did much to determine the shape of the modern Middle East. She became one of the first women to be elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Beatrice Shilling, an aeronautical engineer, (who cured a flaw in the Spitfire engine and helped win the Battle of Britain), noted in her autobiography “It was easier for a woman to be a lion-tamer than an engineer.” In the Second World War, all women agedbetween 19 and 40 had to make themselves available for work and with work came economic freedom.

Newman’s title echoes Ken Clarke’s description of Theresa May as a “bloody difficult woman” but it catches the eye and the text is full of amusing anecdotes.Equality, representation andthe pay gap are all struggles of the past,yet are still experienced by women today. This book, written by a brilliant story teller,does indeed give us the pioneers, revolutionaries and geniuses we did not learn about from our history teachers.

Jean Fox

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