Hannah Jewell on her book '100 Nasty Women of History'
If you haven't yet been introduced to Hannah Jewell or her epic new book '100 Nasty Women of History', allow me the honour. I recently picked up this book based purely on the intriguing title and badass cover. You never know quite what you're letting yourself in for when acquiring a new read, and sometimes you find yourself disappointed. Let me just put your mind at ease right now... this one will not disappoint.
It tells the stories of some of history's most wonderful and wicked women; women you've probably never heard of, but should have. As the blurb says, these are 'the women who were too brave and too brilliant and too unconventional and too political and too poor to be recognised by their shrivel-souled contemporaries. The women who were deemed too 'nasty' for their times. Read their stories and bask in the warm, tingling sensation that comes from learning for the first time about a woman from history who gave zero f*cks whatsoever.'
If the above doesn't have you screaming 'YASS!' right now, quite frankly I think there's something wrong with you. This book is utterly brilliant, and brilliantly presented. Its stories will make you laugh and sob with outrage, sometimes at the same time. Best of all it will teach you, opening your eyes to often forgotten women in worlds gone by, whether ancient Egypt or Jim Crow's deep south. You may have to remind yourself that the characters within its pages – so vividly described they almost step off the page to sit with you as you read – are in fact real people from history, not some creative vision dreamt up for gripping storytelling.
I have always thought if there was one guest I could have for dinner, living or dead, it would be not an Elvis or a Dalai Lama or a Jane Goodall, but an unknown female ancestor of mine, one whose stories haven't been told in the centuries since she lived, but whose stories I would not be here without. I would want to sit and listen to her telling of her life in 15th century Scotland or 18th century London and just want to hear about her world and her place in it; there are so many stories I will never know. But I can know more, and this book is one hell of a tool in getting me there (making me cackle like a madwoman along the way).
I caught up with the book's author, Buzzfeed UK journalist Hannah Jewell, to thank her for giving us this cracking eye-opener, and she talked to me about challenges, motivation, some of her favourite females and her thoughts on the current feminist landscape.
This is your first book, congratulations on the mammoth achievement! What compelled you to write this book?
Thank you! I have wanted to write this book ever since I published several lists about interesting, unknown women in history for BuzzFeed UK, where I worked for three years. Those posts always got a huge response from readers, which showed that people were eager to learn about women’s history in a way that was funny, easy, meaningful, and inspiring. I want this book to be seen as a piece of comedy writing as much as a pop history work, and for women to be able to emotionally relate to the struggles and achievements of women from hundreds or even thousands of years ago. I hope I’ve pulled it off!
If there was just one woman from history you could sit down with for a class-act chat, who would it be?
This question is basically impossible. On the one hand, how crazy would it be to meet an actual pharaoh, like Hatshepsut? You could meet her and just be like, “Can you explain pyramids to me please?” But on the other hand, I am fascinated by many of the more recent women who are only a few generations older and whose battles directly relate to our modern world. So I think I’d choose Ida B. Wells, the black American activist and journalist who published an enormously important work on lynching in the South after the Civil War. We could all learn so much from her.
What is the biggest learning curve you experienced while writing, or what was the biggest challenge you faced?
It was hard to come to terms with the fact that my book could never be a perfect thing. I’m used to writing on a smaller scale, where it’s possible to pore over every word to make sure each thing is just so. In a book of over 400 pages, I had to learn to be fine with the fact that I might look back on it later and think “meh, I could have worded that better”. Which seems obvious, but was a painful thing to realise! When you’re writing, you have to let go, write quickly, and not obsess too much, or you’ll never get a first draft out.
Is looking back in history a vital tool for women to arm ourselves with to face the future?
Absolutely! I think it’s the tendency of some lazy men to assume that our current society reflects some necessary natural “order” – and that the reasons for women’s absence from history or from positions of power today is due to some inherent biological fact rather than the machinations of millennia of patriarchy. The more you know about women who did things, and the ways in which power was wielded to block women from achieving what they wanted to do in their various countries and professions, the more it’s clear those arguments are total BS. It helps to have a few sturdy historical examples to hand when arguing with a true bellend.
The feminist landscape is constantly evolving – what do you think is the biggest obstacle women face right now?
I fear a backlash to our current moment. When women make gains, or when any minority group makes gains, there are those who see equality as the negation of their own power.Like how in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, and the ever-widening reckoning of shitty men across different agencies, we already have actual living breathing men writing in the British press about “witch hunts” and about how men are being terribly persecuted. Persecuted! For having to answer for their crimes! So yes, there’s always the thread of a tidal wave of bullshit in the wake of such a cultural earthquake as the one we’re currently seeing.
Who is your personal hero, and why?
It would have to be my grandma who died a few years ago, Vera Jewell. She lived a fascinating life, starting out in the roughest of circumstances – her mother told her toothbrushes were for posh people! – and raised a big family whose children now live comfortable lives thanks to her hard work. She also has a lot of great stories from living in London during the Blitz. A lot of close calls, but also a lot of dancing, jazz, and romance. I was lucky to get to know her better before she died, since I had moved to London after growing up in California. I snuck her whiskey into the hospital towards the end of her life, as well as plenty of chocolates. She was a big reader, and I only wish I’d gotten to give her a copy of my own book!
What do you hope for this book to achieve; what’s your dream for it?
I want women to feel empowered, but I also want them to enjoy themselves. I want men AND women to learn something they never knew before, and I want the women in this book to enter the public conversation. I want people to question any assumptions they’d had about women in history, and to share what they’ve learned with their friends. I also want a million dollars, obviously. So get buyin’!
Has your first experience of writing a book made you yearn to write another?
The whole writing and editing process feels like so much of a blur! But I AM already starting to think about what I should do next…stay tuned!
If there was one book (other than your own, obvs) you could compel people to read, what would it be?
Everyone should read A Woman in Berlin, a memoir which was written anonymously by a German woman at the very end of WWII. It’s both a gripping account of day to day survival under impossible circumstances, and also a very philosophical look at the nature of war and evil and womanhood.
In this Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein world, wat is the single most important thing we can do in everyday life to affect change, in your opinion?
We can believe women and support women. We can address our own prejudices where we might find them, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel. And we can dedicate ourselves to getting justice for those who have been hurt and wronged, even though it’s hard. OK, that was more than one thing! We’ll just start with believing women, and believing anyone who tells you something about their experience as a marginalized person. Don’t be a dick.
I've got my copy - now go get yours, stat! Buy it here.