This short (115 page) treatise comprises two lectures which noted Cambridge academic and classicist Mary Beard delivered in 2014 and 2017. In these lectures, “The Public Voice of Women” and “Women in Power,” Beard examines the classical roots of the silencing of women’s voices and its effect on women in the modern Western world. Ultimately, in considering how women might truly become “voices of authority,” Beard suggests a reconsideration of “power” itself.
In the first essay, Beard takes the reader back 3,000 years to demonstrate the deep roots of western culture’s silencing of the female voice. For ancient Greeks and Romans, it was an abomination for a woman to use her voice in public speaking. Public speaking and oratory were “exclusive practices and skills” and a (perhaps the) “defining attribute of manliness.” This prejudice against women’s speech is evident even in The Odyssey, when Telemachus admonishes his mother Penelope to be silent and return to her traditional female pursuits back in her room, which Penelope does. In the classical world, the only occasions on which a woman’s voice might be tolerated were either when she was speaking on her own behalf as a victim or martyr (having already been raped, for example, and about to commit suicide because of it) or when she was speaking in defense of her own sectional interests (her home, children, spouse or other women). Beard goes on to point out how in modern history, women may speak out on behalf of sectional interests but are often criticized or berated or threatened with violence for speaking out on broader issues. Beard has intimate knowledge of this as she has been trolled viciously on Twitter and in online publications, and most readers can probably think of other examples (like Gamergate). When women speak outside of their traditional sectional areas of interest, their speech is frequently judged by men as “strident” or “whining” and their opinions are trivialized. Beard argues that the roots of this attitude are hardwired into our culture and have been for millennia. Then how are women to have their voices heard? How are they to ever be recognized as “voices of authority”?
In the second essay, Beard turns her focus to modern women in power while still looking back to the classical views of women as a point of reference. She argues that there is no template for what a woman in power should look like since “…our mental, cultural template for a powerful person remains resolutely male.” Looking at the literature of the classical world, women with power are an aberration and usually come to a miserable end (see Clytemnestra, Medusa and the Amazons). Even Athena cannot be seen as a powerful female figure; Beard calls her a “hybrid,” a warrior (male) and virgin (female), and motherless, having sprung from Zeus’ head. In the ideal male Greek world, no women were needed. Beard notes that prominent female leaders of the modern world such as Thatcher, Merkel and Clinton have each had, in some ways, to try to be like men to make themselves less threatening, for example taking lessons to deepen one’s voice (Thatcher) and adopting the power suit (Merkel and Clinton). Even so, these concessions to the male-centric power culture don’t advance the larger cause of women and haven’t always helped individual women, such as Clinton, to achieve equality in power circles. Beard spends an interesting few paragraphs dissecting the use of Medusa to castigate women in power, most notably Clinton.
Ultimately, Beard suggests that the bigger problem here is how we look at power. Rather than individuals trying to “break barriers” and “glass ceilings,”
We have to be more reflective about what power is, what it is for, and how it is measured. 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 goes on to write that viewing power in terms of politicians, of national and international politics is too narrow, too top down and does not speak to most women. The power structure is coded for men and reliant on prestige. What is needed is collaborative power that includes and empowers followers and not simply a few individuals. By way of example, Beard points to the Black Lives Matter movement, which was started by three women whose names most people probably don’t even know (Alicia Garza, Patrice Cullors, Ocala Tometi).
I find Beard’s arguments regarding women’s lack of voice in power and on power itself to be persuasive and well argued. She is an engaging writer and provides plenty of examples to back up her points. Given that these are lectures, the essays do not go into as much depth as the reader might like, and Beard acknowledges in her afterword that she was tempted to rewrite and add on, but resisted. That is rather a shame, as I would have liked to read her thoughts on the women’s marches, #MeToo, and the growing LGBTQ movement. And other than the BLM reference, there’s not much on race and power here. These all seem to feed into her larger point about the definition of power needing to change and its focus turning more towards grass roots movements. Women and Power is just the sort of read I needed to get refocused and re-energized to continue the good fight against the Patriarchy