No Mean Achiever

31st August 2018

Kathy Walton talks to one of the most recognisable voices on radio about women’s successes, workplace practices and what she’d really like to say to Elizabeth I…

If veteran politician Ken Clarke were to sum up Jenni Murray’s latest book A History of the World in 21 Women and her earlier best-seller A History of Britain in 21 Women he might echo his 2016 comment about Theresa May and call them ‘a bunch of bloody difficult women.’

Understandably, Jenni Murray, the doughty and sometimes outspoken champion of inspirational women everywhere, is not keen on a Clarke-style dismissal of the trail-blazers she features in both books. “I would never use that term,” she says forcefully. “They were brave women who had the drive and ambition to break through what was expected of them.”

The timing of our interview means that Jenni Murray, 68, has to postpone listening to Woman’s Hour, the BBC Radio 4 flagship show she has presented since 1987 and for which she still takes the presenter’s chair three times a week. Instead, she is catching up on some gardening in her North London home and as we speak, filling her bird feeders with niger seeds and positively squealing with delight at the arrival of two chaffinches.

Both volumes celebrate the lives, struggles and achievements of some of the world’s most extraordinary women, living and dead, with chapters in the latest book on luminaries as diverse as Pharaoh Hatshepsut, Marie Curie, Coco Chanel, Toni Morrison, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Cathy Freeman.

It can’t have been easy narrowing her choices down to 21 for either book, so, if she had to choose just one woman to have dinner with, who would it be?

“Top of my guest list would be Elizabeth I,” she says without hesitation. “She may be the only woman in the British book who inherited her power – the others fought for it – but she inherited it with great difficulty.”

She continues: “I’d love to ask her how she coped with a father who beheaded her mother when she was little and then consistently denied her legitimacy; how she managed to surround herself with such good advisors; and if she really made that Tilbury speech (‘I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king’). I’d like her to say yes.”

She goes on to concede that while Henry VIII had his… er… shortcomings, he did ensure that his daughter got a good education. “In the book, it was often the fathers who gave their daughters the same education as their sons” [who were key to their success], she says. Finally, she says she understands why her imaginary dinner guest chose power over marriage, but – eyebrows raised and an arch tone of voice – “Virgin? Really?”

No mean achiever herself, Jenni read French and Drama at Hull University and says she always hoped to become an actress, until she saw Vanessa Redgrave play Rosalind.

“She was incandescent, she leapt off the stage and I knew then I’d never be as good at that,” she recalls. Fortunately for fans of Radio 4, she saw journalism as the next best outlet for her natural curiosity and love of performing.

Described by one radio colleague as having ‘a well stocked mind’ and by another as having ‘the most beautiful voice on radio, ever,’ Jenni was awarded the OBE for services to broadcasting in 1999 and made a Dame in 2011, an accolade which she admits brings its own gender injustice.

“It rankles that unlike [fellow broadcaster] Parkinson, I can’t pass on my title to my husband, who has been and continues to be, such a terrific support to me. It’s so unfair; Mary Parkinson [Sir Michael’s wife] is Lady, while my poor Dave is just Dave.” Early attempts by the Dame to call him Buttons “were funny for a while, but soon got boring,” she laughs.

What is wonderful about both her books is that they are easy to read, hard to put down and packed full of uplifting examples of women who made it, often against tremendous odds, yet Jenni acknowledges that women still have many battles to fight, particularly on the work front. If there were one thing she would legislate for more than any other, it would be the widespread introduction of part-time working for both women and men.

“There is a whole generation of men [many of them friends of her two sons, both in their 30s], who say ‘I don’t want to be the sort of father like mine, who was never there. I’d like to share the responsibility of childcare’.”

She continues: “I know plenty of women who went part-time when they had children and still find that employers don’t treat them seriously, yet childcare is parental work. The years in which children need you desperately at home, all day long, are so short, so I’d press for decent paternity leave and for properly paid part-time work, so that couples can share the childcare. It works in Scandinavia – why not here?”

And how would she counter the low self-esteem that afflicts so many young women today? A product of a girls’ grammar school herself, she favours all-girl schools that “treat girls with respect”, backed up by plenty of support for education at home, as well as a few rather more traditional measures…. “Strict rules about skirt lengths, no make-up and” – laugh – “sensible shoes to make sure girls are not comparing themselves with others.”

She goes on: “Plenty of books in the house, limits on the use of social media and absolutely no phones or computers in the bedroom.” She laughs again, before admitting: ‘I’d have been a terrible mother if I’d had a daughter. I’d have expected her to be a High Court Judge by six!”

Her two sons both have partners and I can’t help wondering how scary it must have been for those young women to discover that their ‘mother-in-law’ (though I don’t suppose it’s a moniker she likes) was the great Jenni Murray?

“I have no idea how their girlfriends feel about me,” she chuckles in her trademark voice-like-melted-chocolate way. “I’m charming, kind, warm, welcoming and lovely… so I hope they like me.”

I’m sure her ‘daughters-in-law’ do like her, if only because thousands of Radio 4 listeners admire her very much – although, inevitably for a broadcaster of her high profile and longevity, she has also had her critics.

She took plenty of flak some two decades ago for quoting an observation by the 18th Century proto-feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft that marriage is ‘legalised prostitution’; and more recently, when she questioned the claims of transgender women to be considered ‘real women.’

“You have to have a thick skin in journalism,” she says philosophically. “I rarely look at Twitter or Facebook and I never look at what people say at the bottom of an article, because it’s so nasty. Sad people sitting at their computers all day like that should be ignored.”

We end by asking if there will ever be a time when women’s lives and opportunities have improved to the point where books (and radio programmes) about their achievements will no longer be necessary. “One would hope so,” says Jenni. “But until then, I’ve no intention of talking myself out of a job.”

Radio listeners everywhere – and Ken Clarke – will no doubt be delighted to hear that.

Jenni Murray is speaking as a guest of Chorleywood Bookshop’s Autumn LitFest at The Junction, Christ Church, Chorleywood, at 2.30pm on Saturday 8 September. Tickets are £12. ‘A History of the World in 21 Women’ (published by Oneworld, usual price £16.99) will be £12 on the day. • 01923 283566

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