Book review: The Book of Gutsy Women

This book goes a long way towards rebalancing our view of history – but it also requires that you care about its authors

Keziah Featherstone

The Book of Gutsy Women

The Book of Gutsy Women

Author: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton
Publisher: Simon & Schuster 
Details: 464pp; £25
ISBN: 9781471166990

I do like a gutsy woman. So I was reasonably optimistic about The Book of Gutsy Women, by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton

It is framed as a long (long) conversation between mother and daughter, exploring female role models

The introduction looks at their relationship with their own mothers and grandmothers, contextualising the challenges that even white middle-class women have experienced in the US in recent history. 

The problem is, though, that you need to care about Hillary and Chelsea, as the gutsy women they celebrate are explored through their eyes. And I’m not sure I do. 

I like Hillary, in that I think she would have made a better president of the US than the current incumbent, but I don’t have strong feelings about Chelsea at all. So, although the women featured interested me, I would have preferred to have learned about them from someone else.

A diverse and representative curriculum

The premise for the book is a good one, however, and there is undoubtedly a real need to draw women such as those featured into the curriculum.

It’s a great introduction for those dedicated to a diverse and representative curriculum: one that seeks to include the traditional but also shine a light on people and events that have been far less noteworthy.

The range included is undoubtedly terrific: from Greek goddesses to writers, scientists, pioneers and explorers. Without a doubt, this menagerie is very woke. But it is pleasing that there is a decently diverse line-up: all eras, religions, races, ages and nationalities are represented. It certainly rebalances some historical thinking about the canon of worthy womanhood.

The first woman to feature in the Educationalists section is Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th-century Mexican noblewoman, nun, writer, intellect and charitable benefactor. I knew nothing about this incredible woman’s life and certainly far less than I did about Malala Yousafzai, the last woman in this section. Many of these are the forerunners of WomenEd – all the values and convictions, just no Twitter to bind them together. 

Who cannot be moved by the bravery of six-year-old Ruby Bridges, the first – and, for a year, the only – black student to attend her elementary school in 1960? The image of her dressed exquisitely and being escorted into school by federal marshals is sobering, given the dangers often evident in the playgrounds today: racial hostilities, knife crime, Brexit-fuelled hatred.

The Vaccinators

Occasionally, a number of women are lumped together, such as The Vaccinators, who sound like a punk band. Vaccines are important: they save lives and it’s a relief that the Clintons are not anti-vaxxers. 

Certainly not all vaccinators are women, but by referencing the nine female polio workers murdered in Nigeria in 2013 and the fact that more than 100 vaccine workers (mostly women) were killed around the world between 2013 and 2017, the Clintons honour the invisible campaigners who often give their lives to help the most vulnerable. It’s essential to continue this education, and blow away the propaganda that at times seems to have the upper hand.

For a primary teacher, there is a lesson from this book for every day. It is a treasure trove of inspirational assemblies, akin to Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo. 

The combination of modern icon and obscure idol is effective and rewarding. However, that a great deal of the featured women had to make countless sacrifices during their lifetimes is testament to historic and contemporary misogyny. 

Everyday gutsiness

Books like this need to exist. Books celebrating women need to be published, promoted and celebrated for all readerships, until the collective consciousness is saturated with knowledge of women in the same way it is of men. 

But what counts as gutsy? Do women have to be loud and brave to be recognised and celebrated? Must we do something extraordinary for our lives to be noteworthy? In this book, to be gutsy is to be brave enough to do what you feel is right. 

I’ve worked with many women who I would consider far more gutsy; I suspect we all have. Gutsy is Linda, whose waters broke on a Thursday morning at school, but it was the last day she had with her A-level biology students. So she deliberately (and foolishly) told no one and got through the day before driving herself to hospital. 

Gutsy is Alex, a former colleague who, when a father went to strike his son in a meeting, threw herself between them and took the full force of the punch. She finished that meeting and the dad never even threatened his son again. 

And gutsy is Clare, who will go into her school on Monday to meet with the parents who continually undermine her professionalism at every chance they have – in person, at the school gate and on social media. Clare will smile, and will continue to meet with them, despite the fact that their last meeting ended with her being told: “Fuck off, you tart.” 

We all need to take our inspiration when and where we can.

Keziah Featherstone is co-founder and strategic leader of WomenEd and head at Q3 Academy, Tipton, West Midlands. She tweets @keziah70

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