Student blog: Jenni Murray: A History of Britain in 21 Women

Danielle Martin is a second-year english and history student at the University of Sheffield and a regular contributor to the University's official student blog, We Are Sheffield Students.

Jenni Murray talked with flourish about her historical book, A History of Britain in 21 Women, which she described to the audience as “partly autobiography”.

The talk was laced with anecdotes from both her personal and professional life, including her son’s shock at discovering the reductionism of his school history textbook, which contained just one page on the Suffragette movement.

As a current student of gender history, it surprised me when Murray told the audience, “the Suffragette movement is proposed to be squeezed into pressure groups”. Only at the beginning of this semester had I discovered how extensive women’s history really is, so I cannot comprehend how secondary education authorities could consider dismissing the women’s movement as a significant, separate narrative, and placing it alongside ‘pressure groups’.

With celebrations for the suffrage centenary approaching next year, the Chancellor has put aside £5 million in funding to support projects in remembering the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave some women the right to vote for the first time. This started the ball rolling for equal voting rights a decade later. The Chancellor said the money will contribute to education.

This is another significant point Murray raised – the importance of educating young people, particularly girls, on the gravity of the suffrage movement and the need to exercise our democratic right to vote. Rightly so, Murray stressed the need to expand, and not limit, suffrage education, as without it, many will be unaware of the sacrifices made to achieve this equal right.

Murray also highlighted the situation in Australia, where it is illegal not to vote. She posed the question of whether Britain should follow suit, considering the number of young women and men who fail to vote, and give the excuse of being ‘too busy’. No-one should be too busy to take ten minutes out of their day to vote when so many sacrifices were made to achieve it.

Murray also raised that Millicent Fawcett of the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) will be honoured next year with the first statue of a woman to be built in Parliament Square. One major historical debate is whether the radical Suffragettes of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) deserve more recognition than the peaceful Suffragists of the NUWSS.

Compared to Fawcett’s constitutional acts to gain the right to vote, the Pankhursts of the militant WSPU used radical, and eventually violent, tactics to gain publicity. Instead of lobbying peacefully in parliament, the militants were seen throwing bricks through windows and marching down the streets. There is historical concern over which tactics furthered the women’s suffrage cause more, and which organisations should receive most credit for their actions. But it eventually boils down to the fact both groups of women took great risks, and both created the equal voting rights of today.

One point Murray made surprised me as a young woman in the 21st century, in which I believe although there is still work to be done, gender equality is on a positive path, and has come a long way. Murray warned, “We can lose the rights we have won”. Referring to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in this context is a sharp and frightening reminder of the possibility of women not retaining the rights which have been gained.

Murray stated we must remember also the situation of women in Afghanistan. As a student of British history, I believe it is important to expand the curriculum on women’s rights to include those still fighting worldwide. Education on the international women’s movement is currently lacking and needs attention.

Furthermore, Murray raised many other important points, including her hope of part-time work becoming something parents do, not just mothers. Murray argued raising children should not just be left to women. Simultaneously, she fondly spoke of her father’s influence whilst growing up. She raised the importance of fathers supporting education, which is something I have been very lucky to experience with my own Dad. His support and encouragement led me to achieving my goal of attending university.

In My Own Story, Emmeline Pankhurst wrote of the time she gained feminist belief as a child, hearing her father say one night, when she was pretending to be asleep, “What a pity she wasn’t born a lad”. I feel incredibly grateful to be living in a time of equal rights in education in the UK, which is all down to the hard work and diligence of activists in improving women’s education. This was in the hope that mothers and fathers today will continue to encourage their children, girls particularly, in their education, ensuring proper use of the equal rights women fought so hard to achieve.

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