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Biography

FIRSTS: THE LIVEWIRE BOOK OF WOMEN ACHIEVERS. By Kate Murphy. The Women's Press pound;5.99.

It will no doubt be cheering for the (female) GCSE students at whom this book is aimed that since its first publication 11 years ago, women have added more "firsts" to their lists of achievements, including first woman priest, first head of MI5, first chief constable of police, and first editor of a national broadsheet newspaper.

While the book does not pretend to offer practical help for young women making career decisions, there is much to interest them here and make them think - as well as, possibly, to inspire them with confidence, in a modern, girl power sort of way.

Certainly, Kate Murphy has her likes and dislikes. Men, when they make a very occasional appearance, almost always receive short shrift - such as Caroline Norton's husband, on page 1, who, we are told was "dull and lifeless". Caroline (1808-1877), on the other hand, was "particularly active and creative", and went on to pioneer the Infant Custody Act, making it possible, after separation or divorce, for children under seven to stay with their mothers.

Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first female prime minister, receives just two lines in the politics section - compared with the Labour MP Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953), who gets almost a page as the first woman Cabinet minister.

There is a good scattering of curiosities - such as the first woman private detective, the first woman funeral director, and the woman credited with inventing over-arm bowling in cricket.

But, in general, the book is most satisfying where Murphy allows herself to go into more detail. I enjoyed, for instance, her two-page account of Mary Somerville ( 1780-1872, "the first all-round woman scientist"), who began her career reading her brother's algebra books secretly in bed. When her parents discovered this "unfeminine" pursuit and confiscated her night-light, she simply memorised the mathematical problems and solved them in her head.

Diana Hinds

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