What do the Odyssey‘s Penelope and Elizabeth Warren have in common? One was told to shut up, the other to sit down, and thus both were denied the right to power and leadership in the form of public speech. Based on two of her lectures concerning women’s relationship with power, Mary Beard demonstrates in this book that attitudes from the Greco-Roman world are still prevalent.
This is a really short book, but there is so much thought-provoking information in it, and Beard is so succinct and clear in her argumentation that it almost doesn’t matter. There are two parts that stood out to me the most: The first is her discussion of the famous sculpture Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini which shows the heroic Perseus holding up Medusa’s head in triumph while standing on top of the rest of her body. Ostensibly, this is just a statue of a hero that has just slain a monster, but if Medusa is seen here as a representation of female rage and empowerment that had to be cut down because her power was terrifying to men, the scene Cellini’s sculpture depicts becomes a chilling display of misogyny, and Beard’s argument for such an interpretation is compelling.
The second is her explanation that in the classical era, public speech was a, or maybe even the, defining attribute of maleness which conversely meant that a woman speaking in public, ergo a woman with power, was by definition not a woman, and furthermore, that a women’s power was illegitimate power. Beard points out evidence of this in the myth of Clytemnestra or the depiction of the goddess Athena. So, what is the solution? Maybe that women can’t win in this power structure that was developed by men for men, and that we need a different structure. There are, however, no easy answers, and Beard doesn’t try to give any because this is not what the book is about.
There are many more parallels that are drawn between ancient times and now, and they are enlightening and infuriating and depressing all at the same time. Beard also shares some personal experiences that make it clear that she really knows what she is talking about. It is not a book without flaws because I do think that there could have been more analysis regarding women that are or have been in power. She mentions Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, and Hillary Clinton only briefly, but in my opinion, their situations warranted a closer look.
Still, this is an important and a great book that is not only very accessible and well-written, but also offers an unconventional angle with its references to the classical era. At one point, Beard writes that “when it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.” One can only hope that it won’t take that long to overcome it.