Lauren Robinson reflects upon classicist Mary Beard’s popular and provocative recent work, Women & Power: A Manifesto (2017).
Mary Beard, Women & Power: A Manifesto. London: Profile Books, Ltd., 2017. RRP $19.99. ISBN: 9781788160605.
Renowned British classicist Mary Beard’s latest offering, Women & Power: A Manifesto (2017), is an incisive yet accessible discussion of the long history of Western women’s exclusion from power. As Beard describes (xi), the core argument of the book is to demonstrate “just how deeply embedded in Western culture are the mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously, and that sever them … from the centres of power.”
As one New Yorker article observed, this is “a very short book about a very long past.” Released in late 2017, it almost perfectly coincided with the outpouring of grief and anger associated with the #MeToo movement. In a world where women are still often not believed when they open up systemic about abuse, often suffered at the hands of men, Women & Power is a regrettably relevant read. Despite her classicist training, Beard does not limit her discussions to the past. She constantly draws clear lines between ancient conceptualisations of womanhood and the modern repercussions associated with such thinking.
The book is comprised of two lectures, delivered in 2014 and 2017 respectively and later published as essays in the London Review of Books. The first considers “The Public Voice of Women”. It begins with a brilliant example of how, as Beard puts it, The Odyssey illustrates the first time in recorded Western history that a woman is told to “shut up” by a man (3). Odysseus’ young son Telemachus rudely tells his mother, Penelope, to leave the men alone – to be quiet – and retire to her womanly work. Beard uses this example to demonstrate how, from the very beginnings of Western culture, women have been denied a voice and excluded from public life. To further this argument, she includes the example of Maesia, a Roman woman who defended herself in court against false accusations. Because of her ability to speak eloquently in public, a skill Romans believed women did not possess, Maesia was denounced as an “androgyne” – a man apparently stuck inside a woman’s body (11). This logic is uncomfortably similar to that of modern identity politics, where women and men who do not adhere to strict gendered stereotypes are also believed to be in the wrong body.
What most interested me in this first essay was Beard’s analysis of women’s voices. She quotes Henry James, the beloved American novelist, who once wrote that women’s voices sounded like “the moo of the cow, the bray of the ass, and the bark of the dog.” As Beard argues, these unflattering descriptions of female voice still appear regularly in the twenty-first century (28). An eco-feminist critique could be another useful way to analyse this hatred of women’s voices. Eco-feminism suggests that women and nature have been conceptually linked, as seen in animalistic descriptions of women’s voices, and that both have been disrespected and devalued as a result of this association. As Beard argues, the derisive attitude towards women’s voices is a tool men have used throughout history to limit encroachment into traditionally male discursive territory (31).
The second essay, “Women in Power”, challenges us to consider how our traditional notions of power exclude women, and make it harder for women to succeed. Beard points out that powerful women such as Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton often dress surprisingly similarly to men. This is a tool used by women, she argues, to make themselves appear more masculine and thus “fit the part of power” more easily (54).
This is, to me, an uncomfortable conclusion. It is certainly true that female politicians and other powerful women have a certain unofficial “uniform”. Dark pants, a crisp blazer, and short hair paired with sensibly high heels are a standard outfit for the women among us who have assumed a leadership role of some sort. Beard argues that this is part of a cultural construct where only men – or in this case, people who appear somewhat like men – are acceptable receptacles of power. However, it is important to acknowledge that modern women’s fashion is often incredibly impractical, and at times even degrading. There is, to me, no real reason for women to wear tight, short clothing or perilously high heels, other than for sexual appealing – hardly feminist stuff! More ‘masculine’ choices, such as the trousers and blazer combination, can then perhaps be seen less as an attempt to be suitably manly, and more as a way to escape the constant appraisal of women’s bodies that “feminine” fashion often encourages.
Women who are in power, Beard argues, are regarded with suspicion and often outright hostility – even if they attempt to placate the masses with their masculine dress codes. This is due to the belief that women are not naturally suitable for powerful positions, and that women in power have therefore “taken” something to which they are not entitled. There are many examples of powerful women in classical culture – for example, the fictional Clyemnestra and Antigone (59). However, Beard argues that these characters were not meant to be seen as role models; instead, they were a stark warning of the dangers of allowing women too much power. The logic of these stories, Beard writes, was to demonstrate the importance of keeping women in their “natural”, powerless state. It was simply too dangerous, these dramas avow, to allow women any authority, for their natural inclination would be to abuse it.
To deviate into a rather less highbrow example, as I wrote this essay I kept returning in my head to the character of Cersei Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019). She is one of the most hated characters on the show, but not for the reasons one might expect. Although she has incestuous relationships and frequently murders to gain her political ends, I don’t believe this is the core reason for her unpopularity. I would argue that she is despised primarily on the basis of her doing the same things that the men in the show do – using and abusing power. While many male characters frequently rape and murder their enemies, they are still fan favourites.
The audience is not encouraged to consider the specific context of Cersei’s character, but instead to focus on what a mean and stupid woman she is. Even when she is paraded naked down the streets, sexist abuse hurled at her as penance for her infidelity, there is little sympathy to be found for Cersei. As an audience, we are encouraged to laugh and agree she is getting her come-uppance, even though almost every male character has been equally unfaithful, murderous and plotting. As a female, Cersei deserves to be humiliated and degraded for attempting to grasp at power. Cersei’s role, thus far, appears to be strikingly similar to the role of Clytemnestra or Antigone – to warn us of the dangers of allowing irrational women to hold authority. The extreme popularity of the Game of Thrones franchise and the malicious delight most people took in the downfall of Cersei are powerful examples of the enduring strength of these classical traditions of female exclusion from power that Beard investigates.
Women & Power is an excellent overview of the long history of female oppression and exclusion in the Western tradition. Some reviewers have commented negatively on the brevity of the book, however I think its pithiness is a decided strength. This book is not aimed solely at academic readers, and its concise approach is well suited to a broader audience. Beard also includes a list of recommended reading for those of us who wished the book hadn’t ended quite so soon. Beard has written a tremendously eloquent book, which urges us to think more deeply about how and why women, as a class, are still excluded from power in the twenty-first century. As Beard writes, looking more closely at the gendered traditions of Greece and Rome will help us to look more closely at our modern society, and to understand why we think about women and power the way we do.
Lauren Robinson is a Ph.D. candidate with the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University in Melbourne. Her thesis is focused on the intersections between gender, class and nature in nineteenth-century Victoria. More broadly, Lauren is interested in the themes of immigration, women’s studies and environmental history.
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