Mary Beard, the Cambridge Classics professor and author of 2015’s massive history of Rome, SPQR, has just published a slim illustrated volume based on two lectures she gave under the auspices of The British Museum and The London Review of Books, one in 2014, the other in 2017.
Her subject is the continued silencing of women’s voices in power from ancient times until now.
She begins with The Odyssey, one of our culture’s oldest stories, where Odysseus’ son Telemachus tells his mother to, in essence, “shut up.”
(“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, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.”)
Beard winds up with the silencing of Elizabeth Warren when she tried to read a letter from Coretta Scott King in the Senate, giving the world the meme “Nevertheless, She Persisted.”
“When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice,” she notes. It’s a shame that Beard finished the book before the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the floodgates of silenced voices of abused women broke.
Beard says her “aim here is 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 and comment: politics in its widest sense (and) the fact that women, even when they are not silenced, still have to pay a very high price for being heard.”
She takes us back to the world of Greco-Roman mythology and the stories of Philomena, who had her tongue torn out to prevent her telling of her rape; Echo, who is punished for her love of Narcissus by losing the power of her own voice and Io, who is turned into a cow after being raped by Zeus and only able to moo.
In our time she uses two very provocative images. One is a famous cartoon from Punch magazine that illustrates what she calls “the Miss Triggs question” and by extension “mansplaining.”
The other is a popular image from the 2016 American election, which was shared widely on the Internet and available on t-shirts and coffee mugs. It shows Donald Trump as Perseus drastically silencing Hillary Clinton as Medusa.
Refreshingly, Beard offers some solutions, which involve acts of re-imagination. “We have to be more reflective about what power is, what it is for, and how it is measured,” she writes.”To put it another way, if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?”
She invites us to re-imagine power as an attribute rather than as a possesion. Instead of masculine notions and idioms of holding power, yielding power, etc. we should think in terms of power as a collaborate effort where power is shared and en-acted.
She invokes Charlotte Perkins Gilmore’s 1915 Utopian fantasy Herland, where women have developed a completely peaceful and well organized female-only society but begin to doubt themselves when for the first time three men visit their land.
The message, Beard says, is stand your ground, have faith in yourself and always answer back to male power.
This is a short book but it offers lots of food for thought even – or perhaps especially – for a male reader like me.
Women and Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard, Liverwright/W.W. Norton