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BOOK REVIEW: 100 Nasty Women of History – Brilliant, Badass and Completely Fearless Women Everyone Should Know by Hannah Jewell

BOOK REVIEW: 100 Nasty Women of History – Brilliant, Badass and Completely Fearless Women Everyone Should Know by Hannah Jewell

Hodder & Stoughton
November 2017
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / History / General & World History / Feminism

7/10

Hannah Jewell is a former BuzzFeed writer you might know from such viral articles as 12 Historical Women Who Gave No F**ks and 14 Badass Historical Women to Name your Daughters After. These days, Jewell is a pop culture journalist at the Washington Post and the author of a debut book titled, 100 Nasty Women of History – Brilliant, Badass and Completely Fearless Women Everyone Should Know. The title takes its inspiration from the slur that Donald Trump made against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential debate, which has since been reclaimed and adopted as a badge of honour by women around the world. This is a worthy title and volume because for too long women have either been erased or canonised by the history books. Jewell is trying to redress this wrong by writing about these complex, imperfect, and inspiring women so that they may for once be celebrated in all of their glory.

Often when learning about history when you get to hear about women at all their lives are made to sound decidedly un-nasty. As if they spent their entire time on Earth casting woeful but beautiful glances directly into their glittering futures, calmly rebuking those that would stop them from achieving their goals…Well, that isn’t how life works, and it never has been. There are no unrelentingly noble people. When you hear the story of a woman who lived a life that was 100% pure and good you’re probably missing the best bits. The nasty bits…
These are the types of stories in this book… They’re the names of women too brave and too brilliant and too unconventional and too political and too poor and not ladylike enough and not white enough to be recognised by their shrivel-souled contemporaries.

There is no doubt that the tone of this book is very much in the vein of a BuzzFeed writer. Jewell uses sarcasm, wit, and humour as a means of distinguishing this book from what would have otherwise been a stock-standard, scholarly collection of 100 mini biographies. Instead, the language is very informal and peppered with colloquialisms, slang and obscenities. The prose is pitched at adults on the younger end of the spectrum (there is even a glossary at the end for “old” people which includes words like lit, bants, work bae, and acronyms like: IRL and TBH.) This language and tone won’t appeal to everybody, but it is certainly colourful.

Listen. The most important thing you need to know about Ching Shih, or Zheng Shi, is that not only was she a pirate who f**ked up vast stretches of sea in the 19th century but she was the most successful pirate in f**king history. She f**ked up that glass ceiling that’s been holding lady pirates back too long. She commanded a goddamn fleet of mother**king tens of thousands of pirate underlings…
The Chinese government was so sick of her shit that they offered her and all her pirates amnesty if she would just stop f**king them all up for a second. They even let her keep her loot. She was such a f**king good pirate that she lived long enough to retire from piracy, and take up bingo or some shit instead. (She actually got married, had a kid, and opened a gambling house.)

The women featured in this collection are a motley crew. Jewell has selected women from different races, religions, centuries, domains, and continents, grouped together under such cheeky titles as: wonderful ancient weirdoes, women with impressive kill counts, women who were geniuses, women who wrote dangerous things (according to terrible men), women who wore trousers and enjoyed terrifying hobbies, women who fought empires and racists, women who knew how to have a good-ass time, women who punched Nazis (metaphorically but also not) and your new revolutionary role models. There is no chronology or order to the entries in each section, Jewell just includes each woman in whichever manner she pleases, occasionally putting the ones that worked side-by-side together. Each entry includes the woman’s name, date of birth and death (where known and applicable) and a black and white photograph (where possible).

But Hedy [Lamarr] didn’t put much stock in her celebrity as a woman. ‘Any girl can be glamourous,’ she said. ‘All she has to do is to stand still and look stupid…’ Hedy was also not one to go out and party with the Hollywood elite. Instead, she preferred to stay home and sketch out inventions at a drafting table.
Her most important invention was something called frequency-hopping. She had recalled from her days married to her first bastard weapons-mogul husband that a problem of torpedos was that their radio guidance could be jammed and hijacked by enemies. And so Hedy and her friend George Antheil developed frequency-hopping, a technology vital to wireless communications, which prevented this problem…
Today, this frequency-hopping technology is the basis of Wi-Fi and mobile phones, things that nowadays people literally die if they are left without for more than a couple of hours. Who knows how many teenagers have been saved by Hedy’s invention?

In many instances there may not be much known about a particular woman. Jewell is honest where this is the case and offers the reader what information she could find about this impressive lady. It is obvious that Jewell has put a lot of research into preparing this volume, given the facts that she is able to provide. It is also interesting to read about women who did important things and should be remembered, but who are all too often missing in action from school history classes and popular culture, like Fatima al-Fihri who founded The University of Al Quaraouiyine in Morocco in 859 AD.

Now, there’s really not much more known about Fatima or her family. The details have been lost in the sands of time, like the details from so many women’s lives. But that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t get to take up space in a history book. Here, Fatima, have some space:

[THIS SPACE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK IN HONOUR OF ANCIENT WOMEN WE DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT BUT WHO WERE DEFINITELY THERE AND DID COOL THINGS]

There are some amazing stories that Jewell offers here. There are lots of tales about women who bucked society’s expectations with respect to gender roles, sexuality, etc. It is inspiring to read about the strength and courage exhibited by many of these women who were often held back or hindered by men or the general patriarchy of the time. It is enlightening to hear where we women have come from because this can help inspire us in thinking where we need to go next.

Lillian [Ngoyi] died in 1980, and so did not live to see the dismantling of apartheid, which was brought about by an international protest movement to boycott the South African regime, in tandem with the daring activism of men and women like her. Among the many lessons to take from this struggle, here are two: never assume that just because something is the law, that it is right, or worth respecting. And secondly, the next time someone asks you with an air of false and cynical knowingness, ‘What have protests ever achieved?’ banish them from your life.

100 Nasty Women may be a light-hearted and humorous history book but it also contains some important stories about some significant woman who were previously erased or forgotten from history. This collection will enlighten and inform a new generation of readers about some great women who made some amazing strides and walked to the beat of their own drums. This is such a worthy introduction to 100 fabulous women so let’s all hope that there are many more instalments to come about more spicy sisters in Jewell’s undeniably unique voice.

BOOK REVIEW: 100 Nasty Women of History - Brilliant, Badass and Completely Fearless Women Everyone Should Know by Hannah Jewell

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