Bloody Brilliant Women, Cathy Newman – Book Review

Hello humans! Readers of this blog may be aware of my love for female characters (I should say, well-written female characters). So, when I saw the opportunity to learn about some less well-known female characters from history I leapt at the chance. It’s been a while since I’ve read any non-fiction in a serious sense in quite some time and this felt like a good time to get into it. I actually read this while I was in Edinburgh for the festival which is normally a time when I would choose something a little lighter but hey – these things happen. But how did my foray into non-fiction go?

bloody brilliant women cathy newman

Goodreads Summary:

In this freewheeling history of modern Britain, Cathy Newman writes about the pioneering women who defied the odds to make careers for themselves and alter the course of modern history; women who achieved what they achieved while dismantling hostile, entrenched views about their place in society. Their role in transforming Britain is fundamental, far greater than has generally been acknowledged, and not just in the arts or education but in fields like medicine, politics, law, engineering and the military.

While a few of the women in this book are now household names, many have faded into oblivion, their personal and collective achievements mere footnotes in history. We know of Emmeline Pankhurst, Vera Brittain, Marie Stopes and Beatrice Webb. But who remembers engineer and motorbike racer Beatrice Shilling, whose ingenious device for the Spitfires’ Rolls-Royce Merlin fixed an often-fatal flaw, allowing the RAF’s planes to beat the German in the Battle of Britain? Or Dorothy Lawrence, the journalist who achieved her ambition to become a WW1 correspondent by pretending to be a man? And developmental biologist Anne McLaren, whose work in genetics paved the way for in vitro fertilisation?

Were it not for women, significant features of modern Britain like council housing, municipal swimming pools and humane laws relating to property ownership, child custody and divorce wouldn’t exist in quite the same way. Women’s drive and talent for utopian thinking created new social and legislative agendas. The women in these pages blazed a trail from the 1918 Representation of the People Act – which allowed some women to vote – through to Margaret Thatcher’s ousting from Downing Street.

Blending meticulous research with information gleaned from memoirs, diaries, letters, novels and other secondary sources, Bloody Brilliant Women uses the stories of some extraordinary lives to tell the tale of 20th and 21st century Britain. It is a history for women and men. A history for our times.

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This was a great read, but I definitely think it’s a book to be dipped in and out of instead of reading it all in one go, as I did. It’s incredibly accessible, but I think I would have taken a little bit more in if I’d had a little time to process in between chapters.

That being said, there are some phenomenal facts and stories in this book. My favourite fact was that the first woman to vote in the UK did so by accident, they mistakenly gave her permission to vote because she owned a crockery shop – giving her the land ownership qualification needed to allow a person to vote – and she went and voted anyway. There were a lot of little nuggets such as that which just flesh out some history lessons, pulling women into the forefront of issues.

My one wish was that this book focussed on ancient women, or women from before Victorian times. Yes, we have less written information about women from further back but there are still some equally interesting stories. That is most certainly a case of personal bias, however, and someone with more of an interest in ‘modern’ history would possibly feel the opposite.

If you’re looking for a non-fiction history book to keep you occupied then I think this would be an excellent choice. It’s very aware of a lot of the problems and prejudices that still affect the study of women in history and the author is also hugely aware of her own privileges which refreshing. You learn a huge amount and it is certainly something you could dip in and out of as needed.

My rating: 4/5 stars

I received a digital advanced review copy of this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

What say you? Are there any non-fiction books that you love? Let me know in the comments below!


4 thoughts on “Bloody Brilliant Women, Cathy Newman – Book Review

Add yours

  1. Thank you so much for this review! This is definitely the sort of book I would love. Logging onto NetGalley now to request it! Does it follow the same format as “Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls” with a picture on one side and a short bio on the other? Hopefully, that makes sense 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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