‘Women and Power: A Manifesto’ by Mary Beard Review

Beard explores the absence of women in positions of power and the role that classical civilisations play in our understanding of leadership and authority. 

Beard’s book is a small volume with lots to say. She opens with an exploration of the earliest example in Western literature of a woman being told to ‘shut up’ by a man. In Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus chastises his mother Penelope for complaining about the presence of selfish suitors in her house and the absence of her husband Odysseus. Telemachus uses the word ‘muthos’ to silence his mother. ‘Muthos’ translates as ‘men’s business’. When Penelope’s son silences her, he embodies the concept that voicing authoritative opinion and speaking publicly is a man’s domain. The values of classical civilizations exclude women such as Penelope from speaking with authority, even though she is more worldly than her son and, by modern standards, should have a right to prevail over who becomes her husband. A woman speaking with authority or in public was ‘by definition not a woman’.

‘I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called an ‘ignorant moron’. These attitudes, assumptions and prejudices are hard-wired into us: not into our brains, but into our culture, our language and millennia of our history.’

In Roman society, it was permissible on rare occasions for a woman to have a voice in public, but that voice was only permissible when it served to announce submission. For example, after Lucrecia is raped she announces her suicide in order to preserve virtue. In exceptional circumstances, such as Lucrecia’s, women could legitimately speak publicly, and that exception was to acknowledge the correctness of their silence. Women could not speak on behalf of all society and should ‘modestly guard against exposing’ their voice as keenly as she would guard against ‘stripping off her clothes’. 

Talkative Roman women were described as ‘unnatural’ with ‘yapping’ animalistic voices. A well-known Roman slogan declared that elite male citizens should be ‘vir bonus dicendi peritus’ or ‘a good man, skilled in public speaking’. Modern Western conventions of public speaking owe much to classical civilisations and Beard argues that public speaking is still considered a man’s domain. You need only cast your eye over modern history to read derogatory descriptions of female speakers parallel to those of Greek and Roman writers. 19th century novelist Henry James wrote that, under the influence of women, language would become a ‘generalised mumble of jumble, a tongueless slobber or snarl or whine’. 

‘I receive something we might call euphemistically an ‘inappropriately hostile’ response – that is to say more than fair criticism, or even fair anger – every time I speak on radio or television.’

From disconnecting women’s microphones in parliament, physical threats made via Twitter and effigies of Hilary Clinton as a beheaded Medusa brandished by Trump (a symbol of male mastery), Beard illustrates how early attitudes towards power continue to manipulate and influence the modern world’s vernacular and understanding of power. The Perseus-Trump and the severed head of Medusa-Clinton were a domestic staple during the run-up to elections in 2016 in America. Yet when a female comedian reversed this iconography, the penalty was losing her job. The same imagery that assisted Trump’s rise to power resulted in her fall from it.

Although Beard sites women who have been made to suffer for seizing power, she also suggests that there is hope. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi started one of the most influential political movements of recent years. These three women founded the Black Lives Matter movement. Perhaps you recognise their names. Perhaps you do not. Together, they had the power to ‘get things done in a different way’. Beard suggests that perhaps we should feel optimism from the influence these three women have garnered. They were able to make change in the world without conforming to conventional power ideals.

I was very struck during, and just after, the UK general election in the summer of 2017 by two disastrous radio interviews given by the Labour MP Diane Abbott and the Tory Boris Johnson. Abbott completely fell to piece over the cost of her party’s policy on police recruitment…Johnson showed an equally embarrassing and stumbling ignorance on some of the government’s headline commitments; he didn’t appear to have a clue on his party’s policies on racial discrimination in the criminal justice system or on access to higher education. What caused these ‘car crashes’ is not the main point (Abbot was certainly unwell at the time). It was the different response, online and elsewhere, that was so striking. It instantly became ‘open season’ on Abbott, ridiculed as a ‘numpty’ a ‘fat-idiot’, ‘bone-headed stupid’ and much worse…Johnson came in for criticism too but in a very different style. His interview was taken more as an example of laddish waywardness.’

Beard concludes by detailing the harrowing harassment she regularly experiences on social media, in newspapers from reporters and from fellow historians. A Professor at Cambridge University, Beard’s credentials are impressive. Yet she is frequently cross-examined regarding her knowledge of Roman history, called a ‘whining’ ‘ignorant moron’ and sent criminal death threats. I’m curious how anybody can be driven to such anger and hatred by a charming lady who cycles around Rome learning about memoirs carved in Latin. It’s hardly blood-boiling stuff. 

‘I would like in the future to think harder about how exactly we might go about re-configuring those notions of ‘power’ that now exclude all but a very few women; and I would like to try to pull apart the very idea of ‘leadership’ (usually male) that is now assumed to be the key to successful institutions, from schools and universities to business and government.’

In the Afterword, Beard documents her own experience of rape as a doctorate student in Italy. Unfortunately, I doubt that Beard is in any way unique regarding the violence and vitriol that has been aimed at her. We should choose our words and actions wisely when it comes to women, regardless of the power they yield, lest criticism becomes a synonym for contempt. 

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