11 Dec 2018

Jenni Murray of BBC's Woman's Hour celebrates 21 women of history

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 11 December 2018

From Pharaohs to the Spanish Inquisition and modern times, Dame Jenni Murray has written a book celebrating 21 women who did not allow adversity and social norms to stem their ambitions. 

Jenni Murray

Jenni Murray Photo: composite

Dame Jenni has spent three decades as the host of BBC Radio Four's Woman's Hour programme. Her new book, A History Of The World In 21 Women celebrates women who have had a profound impact on the shaping of our world.

She says she's been a feminist since she was 15, when she and her mother - who having recently rejoined the workforce - laid out the family dinner. 

"We served the supper and I said 'oh Dad, why don't you get up and do the washing up, he said 'oh, yes I'm quite prepared to help'.

"I said 'it's not about helping, it's about doing your share - everybody goes out to work, I go out to school, Mum and I come back and do all the work and you just sit down' and it was that moment the light bulb went on and I thought 'there's something here that needs to be changed'."

Those ideas stood her in good stead as she grew up. 

"We came into the workplace and we began to realise that as women we were paid less, and as women we didn't have the same promotion prospects that the young guys had, even though on the whole we were much more efficient and much brighter, and we'd stand by the filing cabinet and someone would come up behind us and grab our breast - and we were jolly angry about it."

Her new global book follows her History of Britain in 21 Women, and while it's not an exhaustive list, she says what unites them is that each woman has faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve their goals.

"They were all women who fought for their right to fulfill their ambitions."

The Pharaoh: Hatshepsut

She says first she came across the first woman in the book while recording in Egypt.

"We were looking at the politics of the country and my producer said; 'You know, we really should go and find out about Hatshepsut'.

Deir el-Bahari with temples of Hatshepsut, Thutmosis III and Mentuhotep II, Luxor, Egypt.

Deir el-Bahari with temples of Hatshepsut, Thutmosis III and Mentuhotep II, Luxor, Egypt. Photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

"Off we went to Karnak to the great temple there and we crossed over the Nile on a car ferry to the most beautiful temple in the Valley Of The Kings imaginable - and that was Hatshepsut's temple.

Colossal kneeling statue of Hatshepsut, Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, c. 1503-1482 B.C.  After Thutmosis III ordered Hatshepsut removed from history, the statue's eyes were gouged out, the uraeus serpent broken from her headdress, and the entire statue finally smashed to pieces.

Colossal kneeling statue of Hatshepsut, Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, c. 1503-1482 B.C. After Thutmosis III ordered Hatshepsut removed from history, the statue's eyes were gouged out, the uraeus serpent broken from her headdress, and the entire statue finally smashed to pieces. The statue was reassembled from excavated fragments. Photo: Public Domain / Creative Commons

"On that temple she had written the best fake news story ever created where she had her mother being approached by the dark god Amon, them getting very, very close together - and this is all in the most beautiful hieroglyphs - and then her mother being pregnant … then this baby being born who looked remarkably like a little boy.

"She completely created herself as a man - and she wore male clothes, she wore a Pharaoh's hat, and obviously the aristocracy knew perfectly well what the truth was, but approved of her because she was very clever, she was very efficient, but she had to make up this story for the populace to accept her."

Dame Jenni says Hatshepsut promoted her successor as chief of the army, but he unfortunately decided he would try to wipe her out of history, and she remained relatively unknown until an Egyptologist found an obelisk surrounded by stones.

"Took the stones away and there was her story, this wonderful story of the female-male Pharaoh."

The Martyr: Joan of Arc

A similar theme of refusing to wear women's clothing is exemplified with Joan of Arc, she says.

"When she was finally captured by the horrible English who were really, really vile to her, and they decided they were going to have her for heresy and she stood up in the most extraordinary way to her vicious captors.

"They said 'well we could let you go to mass if you really want to go to mass as long as you wear women's clothes' and she said 'no, I will not wear women's clothes because if I do that I'll be in the prison and one of the guards will rape me, I will insist on wearing trousers.

"It was for that reason that finally the English said 'well, okay, you're a heretic, we're going to burn you at the stake.

She says the story of Joan - an uneducated young French woman who stood up to the English - was a powerful one and it's for that reason it's been retold and revised so much.

"The English were vicious and hated her, it was a very, very nasty war and she was a victim of it."

The Queen: Isabella of Castile

Dame Jenni says Isabella was not her one of her choices.

"There's the small question of the Spanish Inquisition which was really not very nice and she threw the Moors and the Jews out of Spain.

Queen Isabella I of Castile

Queen Isabella I of Castile Photo: Public Domain / Creative Commons

"I said 'no, for goodness sake, I spend a lot of time with these women: researching them, writing about them and I have to sort of like them in some way and feel I have some connection."

However, she began looking into her at the urging of her editor.

"The more I found out about her the more interested in her I became.

"She was immensely powerful: so powerful that in chess, before Isabella the queen was virtually no more than a pawn on the chessboard. After Isabella they rewrote the chess rule book so that the queen became the most powerful piece on the board.

"There she was, a princess of Aragon and her father died, her much older brother took the throne and he did what men did in those days, he tried to marry her off.

"Six times this very young woman said 'no' … which is unheard of.

"Isabella remembered having met a young man when she was very, very young and that was Ferdinand and she said that she remembered him as 'the boy with the smiling eyes'.

"She made the decision that that's who she was going to marry, so she went and fixed it up herself in secret.

"They united Spain, she did a lot of work in improving Spain's laws, she was very kind to prostitutes to make sure that they were protected in ways they never had been before, she funded Columbus in his journeys across the Atlantic - not getting back the same amount of gold that she expected to.

"When Columbus brought back people from countries that he had gone into as slaves, she said 'no I don't believe in slavery, I don't want these people as slaves, you must take them back to where they come from.

"I'm not saying her evangelical zeal was entirely kind and peaceful - it clearly wasn't - but there were certain interesting things about her."

The writer: Margaret Atwood

The idea that women need not be perfect to be considered important to history is also one that was personally driven home to Dame Jenni by another of the women on her list. 

"She is quite the most terrifying woman I've ever come across in my life because she's so clever. She's charming, she's willing, she's a great interviewee but she's really scary because she's so smart.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood Photo: Supplied

"It was quite some time ago and I was interviewing her about the book called Cat's Eye. It was in the '80s and it was the height of the time of ... sisterhood and, you know, how women would really help each other and be incredibly kind to each other.

"The subject matter of Cat's Eye is schoolgirls and how absolutely vile they can be to one another … I said to her 'it's interesting that you've written about this subject at this moment in time when feminism is really starting to gain momentum.

"She just looked me in the eye and said 'oh Jenni, women don't have to be gooder' … it was an interesting grammatical construction."

The painter: Artemesia Gentileschi

"I saw some of her work on a school holiday in Florence and I remember seeing this one painting where for the first time ever I saw a woman looking incredibly strong.

"She was the daughter of a quite well known painter in Rome who was a great friend of Caravaggio, so they knew very much the Caravaggio style.

"She was one of several children, the others were all boys and she was the only one who had any artistic talent, so unusually her father said 'well I know you're a girl, but okay I'll teach you, I'll show you how to do it', and her talent just blossomed."

Gentileschi went through some horrible ordeals.

"One of his young friends came to the house … told the woman who was in charge of her to go away and there is evidence - the evidence that she gave to the magistrates that came to her house is extant and I've put a copy of it in the book - because he raped her.

"She spoke in absolute detail of what had happened that day … and honestly she could have been a girl telling this story yesterday, it sounds so modern.

"Interestingly rape then was not considered to be a crime against a woman, it was a crime against her father or her family.

"She went to court eventually because the magistrates had believed her in the house, and they put thumbscrews on her to see if she was telling the truth … again she was believed.

"The man was found guilty, but of course he managed to evade any kind of punishment.

However, she's interesting because she painted many of the same kinds of subjects men of the time were painting - biblical stories - but with a slightly different perspective.

"A particular one was the Susannah and the elders, this was the story of the beautiful Susannah who was being gazed upon by some of the elders of her tribe.

"Most of the paintings of that subject that you see that are done by men, this rather slim pretty little girl is being gazed upon by a couple of blokes but she looks a little bit flattered and a little bit pleased … in Artemisia's painting she's sitting by the baths just kind of covered in a sheet with these two old ugly guys leaning over the top of a wall leering at her in the most horrible way and Susannah just looks furious, absolutely furious, this strong, powerful young woman who is really angry.

"I've described it as the first #MeToo painting, really."

The politician: Angela Merkel

"I think of all the women who have really made it on the political stage in recent years, she's the one who's kind of got it right.

"She's been determined about her politics, she's determined about the way she looks.

No caption

Photo: AFP / 2018 Anadolu Agency

"What Merkel seems to have done is get her dress right, her look right, her way of speaking right and have that dogged determination about her politics.

"She's led her party for 18 years, she's been chancellor of Germany for 13 years - and in a country where they say they don't have a glass ceiling, they have a concrete ceiling - that is impressive."

Jenni's 21 women are: Joan of Arc, Artemesia Gentileschi, Angela Merkel, Benazir Bhutto, Hillary Clinton, Coco Chanel, Empress Dowager Cixi, Catherine the Great, Clara Schumann, Hatshepsut, Wangari Maathai, Golda Meir, Frida Kahlo, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Isabella of Castile, Cathy Freeman, Anna Politokovskaya, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Madonna and Marie Curie.