Bloody Brilliant Women (2018) Book Summary and Insights

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Book Title: Bloody Brilliant Women

Subtitle: The Pioneers, Revolutionaries, and Geniuses Your History Teacher Forgot to  Mention

Publication Date: 2018

Author Name: Cathy Newman

Book Summary

Throughout the annals of history, most of the historians have been men. This unfair advantage gives us a skewed perspective of the happenings of times past. Many events of long ago revolve around the actions of men with women taking a backseat. Bloody Brilliant Women is a bloody brilliant attempt to change the British historical narrative highlighting the contributions of women in the course of a century from the Victorian Era to the Information Age.

The book gives us an insight into the lives of great women who took on pivotal roles to make sure Great Britain is what it is today. It is an attempt to rewrite the wrongs of British history using a female narrative. Miss Cathy Newman provides us with a rich history through the lens of the many women who took it upon themselves to shape Britain into a pioneer of the free world.

Who Is This Book For

Bloody Brilliant Women is for feminists, historical enthusiasts, the people of Great Britain and any other person interested in having the record set straight.

About The Author

Cathy is one of Channel 4 News Main studio presenters. She joined Channel 4 News as a political correspondent in January 2006. Cathy’s scoops have included the investigation into a British paedophile who abused vulnerable boys in Kenya and the arrest of David Cameron’s most senior aide. She travelled with Angelina Jolie and the foreign secretary William Hague to the Congo as part of their campaign against sexual violence. She also presents other Channel 4 programmes including the recent Alternative Election Night with Jeremy Paxman and some Dispatches episodes and has appeared on Have I Got News For You and Christmas University Challenge. In 2000, Cathy won the prestigious Laurence Stern Fellowship, spending four months following in the footsteps of Woodward and Bernstein at the Washington Post.

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Book Insights

Marital Victory For British Women In The Victorian Era

In the Victorian and Georgian Era, British Women were subject to the laws of coverture. This law allows a husband to take total control of a woman’s legal rights immediately after marriage. Although a spinster could own property and enter contracts, coverture stems from the legal principle of a husband and wife being the same person. However, the women’s rights uprising towards the middle of the 19th century put this law under intense criticism because it treated married women like chattel, preventing them from owning property, allowing their abuse, and denying them custody of the children from the marriage. Not until 1870 was a woman giving the right to have her own funds through the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870. With further pressure, the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1884 became the law. It stopped the practice of husbands locking up their wives for refusing to have sexual relations with them. But this law was untested until Emily Hall. Emily Hall and Edmund Jackson got married after which her husband went abroad for greener pastures. Four years after, he was back in England for his wife. Emily did not want to consummate the marriage making Edmund file a petition for the restitution of his conjugal rights. Prior to the hearing, Edmund snaps and holds Emily prisoner in his home. This allows her family to file a habeas corpus requesting her release. Although the High Court rejected the application, the decision of the Court of Appeal was a milestone for women’s rights because it did not agree that a husband should be lord and master over his wife. Although husbands still saw their wives as property, the case of Emily Hall and the Jackson Abduction remains one of the first milestone for women liberation in the UK.

The Role Of Women In Times of War Paved The Way For Voting Power

Many women took jobs that the men left behind because of World War I. They also took on new jobs that became a necessity for the war effort. An example of these jobs were munitions factories. The increasing demand for weapons made munitions factories the highest employer of British women in World War I. Although there was a reluctance to put women to work in men’s jobs the policy of conscription pushed this resistance to the background. Munitions factories primarily staffed by women, manufactured over 70% of the weapons used by the British military. The British woman took on jobs that were equally hazardous for both sexes. Over 400 women lost their lives because of exposure to TNT for lack of protective clothing. As the government began to recruit more women, this led to an awareness of the inequality in the workplace. This resulted in the first strike for equal pay in 1918 for women by women and won women. As a result, a government committee was setup to look at the issues of equal pay. The final report recommended equal pay where a skilled woman completely replaces a man in the same capacity. Although there were other setbacks along the way, the contribution of women to the war effort was the driving force enabling some 8.4 million women to vote, and own property.

Post World War and The Fight For Sexual Freedom

Although the rate of women’s employment rose from 23.6% in 1914 to 46.7% in 1918, the aim was always to layoff women when the men returned home. As soon as this began to happen, a lot of women lost their jobs and went back to the role of housewife and bearing babies which the government of the day saw as being patriotic. But a few women did not approve of this societal norm and advocated for better reproductive rights for women. One such advocate was Marie Stopes, an aggressive advocate for birth control. It is because of her publication Married Love, published in 1918, that the subject of birth control entered the public consciousness. Building on her work was Stella Browne a co-founder of the Abortion Law Reform Association. Its aim was to advocate the legalization of abortions. The trio of Dorothy Jewson, Stella Browne, and Dora Russell ensured women had more powers during the interwar legislation. The early 1900s from 1918 to 1928 was a landmark year for women. Not only did they get the universal right of suffrage, they also won the right to contest elections in parliament. Nancy Astor remains the first woman to win a seat to the House of Commons after standing for and winning the Plymouth Sutton Constituency. I923 witnessed women having the right to divorce their husbands. Five years after, women received unconditional franchise over the age of 21.

World War II & Gender Inequality

After the impact of women in World War I, there was no resistance integrating women into the war effort for World War II. But this did not stop the discrimination. Employers saw women’s production output in the munitions factories as low compared to men. But the necessity of the day thrust women deeper into the war effort with the government drafting women within the ages of 20 to 30 into the military and civil defence as auxiliaries. As the men took up arms against fascism, women employment rose with almost half the female population within the age of 14 to 59 taking part in National service or other work to help the war effort. Women took part in the manufacture of munitions, ship and aeroplane building. They served as air-raid wardens, worked in air-raid shelters, fire service, as conductors, and nurses. It was around this time that a few trade unions in service of typically male professions such as Engineering began to allow women into such unions. The allowance of women into highly skilled work like fire engine drivers, metallurgy and shipbuilding once again brought about the debate for equal pay. The unions felt worried about the impact of these wages once the men came back from the war. But the government’s immediate concern was the employment of more women into the war effort. Subsequently, the government reached a concession to allow women to collect the same pay as men so far they could do the same tasks without help or supervision. Despite this, many of the factories still found a way around this agreement with women earning a paltry 53% of the wages of men. Worse still semi-skilled and unskilled female workers were not a part of the equal pay agreement. The women at the Rolls-Royce Hillington factory went on strike for being paid less than the men for less skilled work. Despite the recommendation of a new wage system by the Amalgamated Engineering Union, the women went on strike with the support of a majority of the men lasting one week in October 1943. Although the women strikers and their employers agreed finally agreed on equal pay dependent on the machines produced, the inequality against women continued during the Personal Injuries (Civilians) Scheme of 1939. The government paid women 7 shillings lower than their male counterparts. Women who faced risk from bombing raids got lower compensation for injuries compared to the opposite sex. A few trade unions, female MPs, and gender advocates campaigned against this policy. Although the government did not concede at first, equal rates for both sexes became the law in April 1943. Despite this being a breakthrough for women, the home remained the place for a married woman.  

British Women & The Aftermath Of War

After the victory of the World War II, employers expected women to make way for the men returning home. But unlike the drought of World War I, the aftermath of World War II was an era of strong economic growth. Post-war reconstruction made cause for a larger workforce. Aggressive campaigns by the government to entice women into the labour market paid off. There were many job opportunities during the era of the welfare state in sectors known as ‘women industries’. Jobs were plentiful in the just-established National Health Service. They needed many women to be cleaners, nurses, midwives etc. Financial and textile industries also needed women for clerical and assembly work. Although the women in employment increased, lesser pay remained the norm.

Employers believed women’s wages did not factor into the family income therefore the benefits for a married woman should be lower than that of a married man. The 1950s still had the ‘Marriage Bar’ where married women could not take certain jobs such as being a teacher. Those who were working got the sack immediately after marriage. Although close to 40% of married women had a job in the 1960s, they got relieved of their jobs after pregnancy or received lower wages to men with the same jobs.

1968 was a big milestone for women and the struggle for parity in wages. The Dagenham Machinists’ began a strike action which would spread to other parts of the country. At the end, the government passed the Equal Pay Act of 1970.

The 60s’ Sexual Revolution

The 1960s ushered a new age of female liberation. Using the cervical cap to prevent pregnancy ended and the new age of taking the pill made women bolder and less afraid of sex. Sex for women became an act for pleasure not just a means of reproduction. The pill was designed in the 1950s in the US, but was not fully in use in the UK until the 60s. The Abortion Act also made it possible for women to end a pregnancy 20 weeks conception. The publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 was the vanguard for Books like ‘The Joy of Sex’ by Dr. Alex Comfort which helped change the perception of sex across Great Britain, making it okay to try different sexual positions. The sexual revolution ushered a new age of women’s freedom that are still enjoyed today.

Women In Politics & In Control

Margaret Thatcher took office on May 4, 1979 becoming the first Prime Minister of the country. Although she did not use her position, to expand the frontiers of women’s rights, the tide of female power was well on its way. A decade before her, Barbara Castle became the first Secretary of State in 1968. After her election as MP in 1945, she held several key cabinet positions before being the first and only woman to serve in the government as Secretary of State. A year after, Bernadette Devlin became the youngest MP six days before she turned 22. The Miss World Protest of 1970 saw women campaign against the objectification and sexualisation of the female form. The late sixties and seventies formed the backdrop for the advancement of women into the Information Age of today.

Key Quotes

Here is a key quote from the book:

“Increasing openness about sex wasn’t the same as increasing openness about how it was used by the powerful to oppress the weak”.

– Cathy Newman, Bloody Brilliant Women: The Pioneers, Revolutionaries, and Geniuses Your History Teacher Forgot To Mention


Although male historians tend to ‘forget’ about the achievements of women, it is undeniable the giant strides of British women and women all over the world into making the world a better place.

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Editorial Member at LarnEdu is a team of content writers led by Giovanni Olakunori.

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