Book Reviews

Book Review – A History of the World in 21 Women

A History of the World in 21 Women

Publisher: Oneworld

Cover Design: James Jones

Format: Paperback

Pages: 292

Rating: 1/5

Content Warnings: Descriptions of violence, misogyny, terrorism and sexual assault


Being a recommendation from a resident at work, and appearing from the synopsis to be a piece of feminist non-fiction outlining the lives of some inspiring women, I was initially excited to read this. However, once I was actually reading it, I began to suspect it was not what I initially thought it to be. The blunders start in chapter one, and it does not improve much from there. I managed to get through it, because I wanted to be able to provide a well-rounded review, but honestly I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. 

From the offset, Murray judges the women she is discussing based on modern Western ideals of beauty, which is completely irrelevant to their respective accomplishments. One of the most powerful women the world has ever seen, Pharaoh Hatshepsut is reduced to her weight – information I didn’t care about, nor that was relevant to her abilities as a leader. The anti-feminist comments continue in later chapters, with the one surrounding Hillary Rodham Clinton being especially uncomfortable. Murray admits to asking her a series of increasingly personal questions that bear no relevance to the former Secretary of State’s achievements or charity contributions. I was in awe of how ridiculous this was, particularly given this was supposed to be a book about celebrating women. Another time this inability to filter her opinions on physical appearance annoyed me was when she was discussing Benazir Bhutto, the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan, and couldn’t help but comment on the shape of her nose, before even bothering to talk about how she upheld democracy in a country where people were constantly attempting to overthrow her. I genuinely couldn’t believe it, and almost stopped reading then and there. 

Throughout the book, Murray also comments that often women are aided by their fathers and brothers to positions of power, as though they couldn’t possibly have managed their achievements alone. This further irritated me – why write a piece of supposedly feminist non-fiction if you don’t believe in the power of women yourself? It felt as though she couldn’t quite commit to what she was saying, which for me called into question the point of the book. 

If the aforementioned problems weren’t enough to deter you from reading this book, then perhaps the Wikipedia style recollection of information will be. Murray essentially lists the information in a manner that fails to flow and lacks personality, and when she does interject her own opinions, they are often problematic. After finishing the book, I looked Murray up, and found that she has been guilty of making transphobic comments in the past, stating that transgender women are not ‘real’ women, which is even worse than any of the comments she makes in this book, and confirms that I will not be giving her a second chance by reading her previous work of non-fiction. How this woman can pass these arbitrary judgements on other women that have the potential to incite hatred and still feel comfortable presenting a radio show about women completely baffles me. 

The women mentioned in this book deserved better than to be reduced to physical appearance and the opinions of men, and I feel determined to seek out other literature about them in order to read more about their achievements. There are hundreds, if not thousands of other pieces of non-fiction that are actually feminist, so I implore you, please seek those out rather than reading this. Please feel free to recommend any good feminist literature you’ve read recently that may help remove the bitter taste this book has left in my mouth. 




3 thoughts on “Book Review – A History of the World in 21 Women”

  1. I read her previous book which was 21 women who shaped Britain or something like that. I had similar issues. The women she picked were pretty much all white, middle class and… Boring. We know about Queen Victoria and Margaret Thatcher! I wanted inspirational women that I knew little about and women that were representative of Britain as a whole. I have seen this book in the shops and I was considering borrowing it to see if it was any better than her first one but I don’t think I will!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh no, that sounds even worse, I’m extra glad I didn’t choose that one now! Her worldview appears to be quite problematic, so her books were always going to be prejudiced unfortunately. Oh well, onwards to something good now hopefully! And you do right, I wish I could have avoided in retrospect >.<

      Liked by 1 person

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