Jenni Murray: ‘We have to be vigilant about women’s rights’

Jenni Murray. Picture: Joel Ryan

Jenni Murray. Picture: Joel Ryan - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Bridget Galton talks to ‘first lady of radio’ about her ‘important’ history of Britain’s top women

Jenni Murray dedicates her History of Britain in 21 women to “all the young people who need to know”.

The 67-year-old may have incurred the wrath of millennials this year for her comments on trans women, but she clearly thinks she’s got something to teach them.

As the Womans’ Hour presenter rails against feminism being axed from A level politics, and a media that peddles “ghastly headlines” like ‘Legs-it not Brexit’, she’s also clear there’s still work to be done.

Intended as a counterpoint to Thomas Carlyle’s claim that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’ this lively and feistily argued selection is also deeply personal.

Elizabeth I - not Victoria - makes the cut “because I have been obsessed with her since I was a teenager”.

Mary Quant is lauded for assisting the “gender-quake” that freed her generation from the Playtex girdle and suspender belt. And Fanny Burney’s gruelling account of a breast cancer operation without anaesthesia goes in to remind women it’s possible - like Murray- to survive the disease.

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Although history will judge whether SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon should have been her 21st woman, the inclusion of Margaret Thatcher is unarguable.

“It was incredibly difficult to choose but my publisher said ‘you have to stop we can’t fit in any more! I would love to have a party and invite them all,” says the veteran broadcaster.

“Everywhere I go people say this is so important and how there’s hardly anything about important women at my daughter’s school. I’m not one to ram things down people’s throats but younger generations need to know about these women.”

Her range is broad; women of science (Ada Lovelace, Caroline Herschel) art (Gwen John) writing (Aphra Behn) and politics (Barbara Castle)

“I had real difficulty deciding which novelists but chose Jane Austen because there is no one to touch her.”

Boudicca also holds a personal attachment: “She was the first statue of a woman that I saw and that really thrilled me. I came down to London (from Barnsley)for the first time with my parents and saw it by the Embankment. This woman in full control of her charging horses with two women behind her. I thought ‘My goodness who is that?’”

Murray is in awe of the Celtic tribeswoman’s courage to “take on the most powerful army in the world because she should have inherited land and money when her husband died.”

When she demanded her rights under Celtic law she was beaten and her daughters raped. Murray muses on how we might have gone forward had she won. “We might not have had straight roads but had very different sexual politics.”

As President of the Fawcett Society, she had to select Millicent Fawcett. But weighing up the difference between her Suffragists and Emmeline Pankhurst’s Suffragettes Murray concludes: “Fawcett’s tactic was to make connections with powerful men and persuade them to the cause, Pankhurst was happy to throw stones through windows and damage property to make their cause prominent. I can’t say one or the other was more important but while I like to think I would have been putting good arguments, I suspect I would be throwing stones and taking direct action. It might have been more fun too.”

Unsurprisingly she gets “really cross” when women say ‘what’s the point of voting, it’s not going to make a difference’ “It’s your right, it was hard fought for,” she says with an edge of the steel that makes her such a good interviewer. While some, like doctor Elizabeth Garrett Anderson were from respectable families, playwright Aphra Behn was “a very naughty girl” and Ethel Smyth, who composed Suffragette anthem The March of the Women, was openly lesbian.

“She had played cricket and taught the rest to bowl overarm so they could throw stones. While she was in Holloway a group gathered outside to sing, she leaned out of the bars and conducted them with her toothbrush. That’s the spirit I love.”

As a young journalist Thatcher once rescued her from the crush of a crowd. but Murray says: “I was quite open about how she

terrified me, I’ve never been so frightened in my life going to interview someone.” Later when the ex PM’s autobiography came out she came into the studio “on my territory.” But when Murray dared to raise comments by male colleagues about her sexual allure “It was as though the radio had frozen over. She said nothing and looked at me as though I was completely off my head.”

Presenting Woman’s Hour for 30 years it’s been said she has ‘the most beautiful voice on radio’ interviewing everyone from Hollywood stars to world leaders.

As one of radio’s best interviewers, Murray’s mantra is: “Be well informed, don’t ask a question to which you don’t know the answer, and construct your interview with a beginning middle and end so it works like a good story.” But she adds: “Then I listen. Deviate from your plan when you hear something you need to pick up on. When you have a politician avoiding the facts don’t be frightened to go for it, but when someone is talking about an alcoholic mother or child who died. be gentle and respectful.”

Asked how feminism has come on in 30 years she says: “When I first read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale I thought ‘come on Margaret it could never happen’. But it did in Afghanistan where young women had their rights completely removed. Across the Middle East behaviour to women is beyond Medieval. We have to keep saying. Don’t sit back on your laurels. We’ve made significant changes over a short period but we have to hold onto those rights and be vigilant.”

Jenni Murray speaks at the Proms at St Jude’s Lit Fest at Henrietta Barnett School on June 24.