Book Review: Hannah Jewell’s 100 Nasty Women of History will help you find your new favourite historical figure

Join The Washington Post’s pop culture editor Hannah Jewell as she plucks (almost) forgotten women from the historical cutting room floor. From artists to investigative reporters, scientists to queens, political firebrands to murderers, there’s no such thing as the delicate fairer sex here. Get in the kitchen and make you sandwich? Puh-lease. I’ve got an empire to overthrow.

Full disclosure: I’m a former history major, a bookworm, and an angry feminist. There was no way I wasn’t going to love this book. There was also no way that my Booktopia cart wasn’t going to pile up after reading it, full of books by and about these women. #SorryNotSorry, bank balance.

From Wonderful ancient weirdos and Women who punched Nazis (metaphorically but also not) to Women who fought empires and racists and Women who knew how to have a good-ass time these 100 (well, technically 104) women are diverse group, a potent and inspiring mix of eras, escapades, and ethnicities.

You won’t want to go for a drink with every one of them – though if Empress Wu asks, you should probably say yes so you don’t piss her off – but that’s just one of the key messages in Jewell’s work, an acknowledgement that women don’t always fit the cookie-cutter idea of woman-ness. Maybe that means racing planes around the world or wearing trousers or maybe it even means poisoning a bunch of people, but however these women broke the mould, there’s a difference between being exceptional and being an exception. They’re outstanding in their field, of course, but certainly not “not like other girls”. Women can be many things, brilliant and inspiring, sure, but also dangerous and flawed and, well, nasty. 100 Nasty Women of History asks why we can accept that mixed bag of character quirks and traits from men, but not from women.

For those moments when you get a bit too frustrated with history (see above for when that nearly happened to me), the fast-paced bios are (thankfully) complimented by Jewell’s infectious sense of humour. Jewell laces her work with sarcastic bite and seriously scathing side eye, levelled firmly at the traditional view of history as the realm of the dead white male. It plays a major role in keeping the pages turning and the outrage flowing, as you navigate your way through this plethora of less well known historical figures, making it very easy to stick to Jewell’s vision of her readers smashing this book out in one sitting. (Sorry, Hannah – it took me three!)

Will there be women you have heard of? Of course. I’m pretty sure most schools will cover Sophie Scholl and the White Rose in history class, and I tend to yell random information about Artemisia Gentileschi at someone at least once a month. But for every name you might know, there’s bound to be five you don’t. And when some of the information we have for these women barely covers a page, even a name can be fairly exciting.

Packed with women too brave, too brilliant, and too unconventional to have a place in our traditional view of history, 100 Nasty Women of History is an inspiring and exciting collection of mini biographies. And it is, as Jewell says, a healthier alternative to drinking yourself into oblivion every time a politician thinks he’s allowed to decide what’s going on inside a woman’s uterus. Whether you’re a creative looking for your next idea, a student hoping for a subject a little out of the usual history box, or just a fellow nasty woman (minimum requirement: half a brain cell and the ability to speak), this is an absolute must read. Just don’t be surprised if your to-be-read pile suddenly starts to swell!

Hannah Jewell‘s 100 Nasty Women of History is out now, available through Hachette Australia.


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Jodie Sloan

she/her Brisbane/Meanjin I like fancy cocktails, pro wrestling, and spooky shit.