This book has been bubbling away in me ever since I moved to Bristol in 2008 and discovered what a rich history of wonderful women this great city has. While researching this book, I’ve uncovered so many fascinating stories of women’s history that I’m now really pleased to be sharing.
– Jane Duffus, The Women Who Built Bristol
The Women Who Built Bristol is an exciting compendium of women who have pushed boundaries, and pioneered social and scientific breakthroughs.
The rules of the book are that every woman included must have been born, lived or died in Bristol. This is a neat way of ensuring that you get a good overview of people who have affected the city’s makeup – after all, there are plenty of women included who were born abroad (such as Andrée Peel, the French Resistance fighter who moved to Bristol after the war), who nonetheless have helped to define Bristol’s character.
Other pioneers from the panoply include: Janet Vaughan, a haemotologist who revolutionised our understanding of anaemia and how to treat it; Fleur Lombard, a firefighter who died heroically fighting a supermarket fire – the first female firefighter to die on duty in the UK; Annie Kenney, a working-class suffragette who became one of the Pankhursts’ right-hand women and took over the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) after years of Bristol-based activism.
Inherently, when you read across a mass of different lives like this, a few themes stick out. One is the difference that wealth makes to helping women push against oppressive boundaries – it becomes fairly striking across the course of the book, and highlights the need for those people who are born into greater privilege to fight as allies for the rights of those who are not.
Another is the fact that so many of these women came from Quaker backgrounds. Quakerism holds the tenet that women and men are spiritually equal, although in practise this tends to get lost under male structures. It seems all it takes is a small crack in the wall of patriarchy for women to use their skills, tenacity and self-belief to push for a more equal world.
While there are working-class stories in the book, the greater presence of middle and upper classes made it a relief to see a set of entries at the back specifically devoted to the lives of working women in a number of Bristol’s factories. This helps to give the book balance, and also reminds us: women have always worked.
The book is put together, largely written and edited by Jane Duffus (who has also contributed articles to the Heroine Collective), but there are a number of different other contributors joining the fray to write about women in their specialist areas. This is a great decision, because it lends the book a number of perspectives and voices, which keeps it vivid. My personal favourites were the contributions from Dr. Suzi Gage, with detailed entries on female doctors breaking their way into the profession, and Amy Mason, a comedian who writes about producers and hoaxers with mischievous joy. Their passion for their subjects really sparkles.
It does feel like suffrage and unionism in the 1800s and 1900s make up the bulk of the book. Of course, many such individual pioneering women are still under-documented, and their inclusion is fascinating, important and vital. I suspect that the very fact that women tend to be written out of history makes it difficult to add balance from earlier times, especially given the book’s geographical parameters, but given that the title references 1184 – 2018, it would have been nice to get even more insight into the breakthroughs made by women from the 12th century to the 18th.
An interesting aspect you encounter early on is that the women are presented warts and all. This occasionally creates some uncomfortable reading, but at the same time, we need to be able to laud positive contributions to the world as well as denounce negative ones. That said, there were a couple of entries that I felt didn’t quite get this balance right – where, for me personally, the negatives outweighed the positives.
For the purposes of this review, I read the book cover-to-cover, but I don’t think that is necessarily the best way to do it. Really this should serve as a resource to drop into, pick out someone in a field you want to be inspired by or to learn about. An index of professions by page number is missing, but it’s still possible to consume the stories in this way.
Overall, this is a thought-provoking, inspiring and fierce book, giving much-deserved prominence to a lot of courageous women, many of whom would otherwise have lacked it. It’s a considerable undertaking to pull together such a book too, which makes it all the more commendable. This is definitely a book to buy and to keep going back to over the years.