Book Review: ‘On This Day She’ by Jo Bell, Tania Hershman and Ailsa Holland

This is a book which will probably arouse many different emotional reactions in the reader: fascination, inspiration, astonishment, disgust, anger, depression… you name the life situation the reader is in, and that will determine his or her response to On This Day She by Jo Bell, Tania Hershman and Ailsa Holland.

Many different women, across all periods of history and many nations, continents and cultures, are represented in this book. Their lives and achievements encompass the full range of human endeavour, and the vast majority you may never have heard of, because history chose not to include them in its pages. But the cumulative effect of reading their biographies, all arranged under days of the calendar, is disturbing and uplifting by turns.

Some of these women were enormously successful and influential in their own individual spheres; others were treated with gross injustice and / or met untimely and tragic deaths. Some of them are indeed now acknowledged and recognised for their achievements – for example, the woman who invented the game of Monopoly (Lizzy Magie) but who never received either the credit or the income from her invention, which instead went to Charles Darrow.

I do believe there are signs of encouragement. In our world today, we all know about Greta, Malala, An Sang Su Chi, Nicola Sturgeon, Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel. Looking at history, we all know the names of such women as Elizabeth I, or Agatha Christie, or Florence Nightingale, or Jane Austen, or Mother Teresa. We do have a number of prominent women in the world today, whom we need to support and honour. This book reminds us that there have been many, many gifted women throughout history who have not been so honoured; in fact, far from that, they have been crushed and denigrated and marginalised. There is still a very long way to go before all members of the human race are treated equally, regardless of gender, and the many other factors which divide us.

Whilst reading this book, one of the many thoughts that came to my mind was this: JK Rowling, whom many admire, is strongly opinionated. She expresses her opinions fearlessly in the public arena, which she has every right to do. But would her opinions receive the same response if she was a man?

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This book makes you see history differently and through a new lens. Hard-hitting, discerning and sharp, the authors show us the way exceptional female movers and shakers have been rendered invisible by history. Much of this, the authors claim, is the consequence of a lazy use of “generic” language, and sentences framed to denigrate women and represent their role and purpose negatively. They give an example of this in the way in which Catherine of Aragon is summarised by history books as having “failed to provide Henry VIII with a male heir”. This can be rephrased as “Catherine and Henry had no surviving sons.” It’s still accurate, but the balance has been changed. Language needs to evolve to redress this false view of human life.

One astonishing quote in the book, from a man, explains that by ‘person’ he did not of course mean ‘woman’ – he only meant ‘man.’ This is certainly a step further from the assertion that of course the term ‘man’ is always taken by us all to mean ‘human beings.’ Personally I try to use the term ‘humankind’ as much as possible or ‘we’ or ‘human beings’. I do believe language has power; it determines our unconscious presumptions. The words we use do matter; they condition our attitude to the world, and lie behind all our prejudices and false judgements of others.

Among the entries in this books you will find archaeologists, nuclear physicists, mountaineers, peace activists, poets, novelists, artists, anti-slavery campaigners, environmentalists, human rights lawyers, anthropologists, fighter pilots, Viking warriors, nuclear scientist and many more. This book doesn’t presume that women have always been good. Tyrannical rulers are also included. The thesis of the book does not include moral judgements on that level; simply the invisibility of women in our histories.

You will find a woman who completed a course of undergraduate study at Cambridge University but were told she could not be awarded a degree because of being a woman; a female artist who created a famous self-portrait which was by default attributed to her husband; and numerous women who have been defined as ‘muses’ or ‘assistants’ to the more famous men in their lives, when they were in fact equal creators in their own right.

I highly recommend this book to all.

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