This is an exciting collection of speeches by women offering content ranging from 1588 right to up the present day, concisely tracing developments across a range of political movements women have contributed to. It’s a powerful book which highlights the act of speech itself, challenging the idea of women across history as silent, but reminding us their action was vivid, tenacious and had momentum – women have been always been busy, but our history has just been poorly documented.
The context Russell puts around her women is insightful and engaging, bringing you up to the present moment of the speech, many of which offer fascinating perspectives on race and suffrage. There are definitely some unusual entries too, which makes her contextualising useful.
Even if you’re well-read in women’s history, this book has a good chance of providing you with something new. I particularly liked Political Activist Angelina Grimke’s 1838 Anti-Slavery speech, which she delivered while a violent mob battered the doors and windows outside, eventually burning the whole building to the ground. ‘Every man and every woman present may do something by showing that we fear not a mob,’ she said. ‘by opening our mouths for the dumb and pleading the cause of those who are read to perish.’
The collection also includes some slightly more well-known but still original entries, such as the wonderful ‘Professions for Women’ speech by Virginia Woolf in 1931, where she beautifully evokes the power of internal misogyny. Personifying the detrimental internal voice as the ‘Angel in the House’ who was ‘utterly unselfish’, who ‘sacrificed herself daily’, Woolf states that ‘The shadow of her wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room […] she made herself as if to guide my pen […] I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.’
Amongst these, the more well-known entries feel like old friends. After all, when isn’t it wonderful to read Sojourner Truth’s ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ and Emmeline Pankhurst’s ‘Freedom or Death’ speeches? Russell achieves a great balance in this way, giving the book a clever pace and structure. The inclusion of subject specialists is also a brilliant choice – Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize lecture on the discovery of the elements radium and polonium is an excellent read.
Russell acknowledges in her introduction that the women she has included aren’t heroines or saints, and that some of them leave a complicated legacy, and I agree to not include women according to personal or political bias is problematic. When including women on The Heroine Collective, we have a similar challenge – who are we to play goddesses and decide which women are deserving of the subjective title ‘heroine’? To attempt some solution to this, we include women who meet two criteria: firstly, that they challenge social, cultural and political adversity for the benefit of positive change, and secondly, that they value equality. But of course, it’s still subjective.
Russell says she is presenting ‘Great Women’, and this is an understandably broad and ambiguous umbrella. I would say that the women in this collection are what most consider ‘great’ – they are exceptional, fought for socio-political change, prioritised liberation from oppressive hierarchies, values, laws and systems. But when I got to Margaret Thatcher, I confess I did struggle to accept her inclusion.
If ‘great’ means having an impact, then yes, of course Thatcher had an impact. But Thatcher, who strove for the complete political opposite of the women included in the book, who worked against women very specifically, and who has endless exposure across all kinds of cultural outlets, always seems an odd choice when she stands alongside women like Sojourner Truth or Jane Goodall.
Russell isn’t the only one to include Thatcher in women-in-history collections that largely celebrate feminists or civil rights activists, Thatcher crops up all the time. I’m forever puzzled to see her. I agree with Russell, women are flawed, and human, and we should remember them in full colour. But unfortunately no-one is forgetting Thatcher, we live in her legacy. While some of the women in the book have arguably made dubious decisions, Thatcher’s political impact for women is overwhelmingly proven to be negative.
The design of the book is lovely and colourful, with great illustrations by Camilla Pinheiro which depict action and individualism, character and life, and bright full-pages of quotes. There is a part of me which wishes we would get to the point where we just publish women’s speeches as we would do men’s – in simple paperback, no fuss, just a simple black and white focus on the words, rather than publishers having to work so hard to sell the content. But having said that, the upside of the real effort that’s gone into this design is that this is a beautiful object to own and has the benefit of appealing to a younger generation. And despite its hard-hitting content, it makes a very nice coffee table book which does serve the purpose of getting the information to wider audiences.
I was also impressed by how light the book is given it’s a good-sized hardback. I carried it around with me for a few days quite happily.
Russell, Pinheiro and Quarto have done a great job here. This is a brilliant read, absolutely worth the financial and emotional investment, and it’s one you keep going back to for different reasons, for different sustenances, over time. I highly recommend.