Review: Women & Power by Mary Beard

Charlotte Taylor

It is hard to believe that just over a year ago, one woman was on the cusp of becoming first female president of the United States.

Of course, we know what actually happened next.

How many could think him the better candidate for president was puzzling to say the least. What was it about a misogynistic, reality TV star that captured the imagination of the American people? In amidst all the soul searching, few would have thought to look back to the Ancient Greeks for an answer.

Arriving with exact timeliness on the bookshelves, Mary Beard’s brilliant Women and Power: A Manifesto shows us clearly and unambiguously the results were no mere freak of the American people, but the inevitable consequence of history.

Based on two prescient lectures originally given in 2014 and 16, in the two essays which make up the book Beard aims to take, ‘a long view, a very long view’ on the ‘culturally awkward relationship between the voice of women and the public sphere of speech-making debate.’

By charting the course of the gender agenda from Ancient Greece to the present day, she hopes to ‘help us get beyond the simple diagnosis of misogyny’, and identify what exactly underpins the still terse modern relationship between women and power.

It’s hardly an easy task that she has set herself, and yet in just over 100 pages and two essays she appears to have done it; her argument holds heft, and is made with such clearsighted reasoning, that there seems is little to pick apart.

Take the very beginning of the book, which starts with a scene from Homer’s Iliad. One morning, Penelope descends from her quarters to find a bard singing a song to her throngs of suitors. Unamused, she suggests the bard perform a different number. At which point her teenage son Telemachus interrupts: ‘Mother’ he says, ‘Go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men.’

From this, she illustrates two of her main points about the ancient world: firstly, that in the Greek and Roman world, speech was solely the province of men; and secondly, that speech, and consequently power, is a ‘defining attribute of maleness’.  All well and good, but why does this matter?

Professor of Classics she may be, but she is under not delusion about the limits of her subject. Of course, not all Western culture descends from the ancients; crucially though, much of our tradition of public speaking still does. When we speak every day of power, we speak in the language of Roman and Greece, and this leaves women necessarily mute. If women have no voice in this structure, where does that leave them in terms of power?

Well, nowhere.

Even one year ago, it would have been easy to dismiss her argument that ‘the story goes a long way back.’ But recent events, such as the Weinstein scandal, have made it abundantly clear how easily womens’ voices are suppressed. History is not exactly cyclical it would seem, but still. If the exclusion of women from Greek public life was ‘active and loaded’, as Beard states, then the women of the Ancient world – the Echos and Lavinias – still have much in common with the women of #MeToo.

That those women who have chosen to speak out from the Ancient world on have been demonised goes without staying. The image most likely to remain after reading the book is that of the severed head of Medusa. Down the centuries her head – chopped off by the very male Perseus – emerges bloody when any woman deigns to speak of anything other than loom and distaff. At the Republican National Congress merchandise was available featuring Hillary Clinton’s face imposed on that of Medusa and, you guessed it, Trump as Perseus.

This perhaps makes it all sound rather like heavy weather, yet it is not in the least. It’s a wry often witty peace, one that isn’t doomed to wallow in the misery of an unpleasant history. Instead, her approach in the second essay – a rousing conclusion to 1000s of years of oppression – is decidedly practical: now that we understand the context, what are we going to do about it?

Her answer is simple, yet decided radical. ‘You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.’ It’s her willingness to throw out the rule book of good female conduct, and her exquisite scholasticism throughout, which makes this a modern feminist classic. That many women are beginning to heed her advice is undoubtedly a good sign, though one doubts whether the serpentine spectre of Medusa will ever cease to strike.

Women & Power: A Manifesto’ is published by Profile Books.

Image credit: Profile Books (with thanks)


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