Women and Power by Mary Beard

December 3, 2019

Women and Power is a brief but thought-provoking book by classicist Mary Beard, author of the outstanding SPQR, a history of ancient Rome, and many other books about the classical world.  It is based on two lectures she gave for the London Review of Books winter lecture series in 2014 and 2017.  Her theme is the treatment of powerful women in Western society from the ancient world to the present day, and how the voices of women in power have been suppressed over the years, and still are.  Beard points out that women have made a lot of progress, and mentions the example of her own mother, who was born before women could vote in parliamentary elections in Great Britain, and lived to see a female prime minister.  No matter what her personal opinion of Margaret Thatcher was, she was very proud to see a woman become prime minister.  But still, women in the highest levels of politics, business, and other areas have a harder time than men, and are the objects of hatred, including attacks on social media, much more than men in similar positions.

Beard begins with the first recorded example in Western literature of a woman being silenced.  Towards the beginning of the Odyssey, Penelope comes downstairs from her private quarters to the hall of the palace, where she hears a bard playing a song for her suitors, about the difficulties the Greeks are facing in their return from the Trojan War.  She asks the bard to play something happier, but her young son, Telemachus, tells her to be quiet and go back to her room and her weaving, and reminds her that he is the head of the household until Odysseus returns.  Beard draws a parallel between this incident and a modern cartoon from Punch, which shows a woman in a meeting room where all the other people at the table are men.  The boss tells her that her suggestion was a good one, and perhaps one of the men would like to present it.  The meaning is, of course, that, as a woman, no one will pay attention to her.  The silencing of women's voices has gone on from ancient times to the present day.

In the ancient world, of course, public speaking was always associated with men.  Beard mentions a few intriguing examples of women who spoke in the Roman Forum, and how they were ridiculed.  One woman was said to have a man's nature, and another was described as barking like a dog.  In ancient times, a low-pitched voice was considered more authoritative than a high-pitched voice, and Beard says this is still the case.  Margaret Thatcher had her voice trained in order to sound lower.  Many women who have spoken in public, over the years, have been described as masculine.  Beard mentions Queen Elizabeth I's famous speech, where she said, "I have the heart and stomach of a king."  But Beard says it's likely that Elizabeth never actually said that.  The earliest source for this speech is a report by a male author written 40 years after the fact.  So it is probably a man putting words into Elizabeth's mouth, declaring her own masculinity.  Going back to the ancient world, Beard says the only times when women were really heard in public were when they were about to die.  She gives the examples of early Christian martyrs speaking before being fed to the lions, and the story of the rape of Lucretia, who denounced her rapist before committing suicide.

Beard writes about her own experiences of attacks in social media by men who think they know more about Roman history than she does.  Every time she appears on radio or television, these men harass her.  When she responds to the attacks, she is described as whining, which is, again, a reference to the high-pitched female voice, and she points out that a man saying the same things would never be described this way.  She says women have been taught not to respond to attacks on social media, and not to pay the harassers any attention, because that's exactly what the attackers want.  But she says that this attitude leaves the bullies in charge of the playground.  Beard also mentions studies that say most of the people who write hateful posts on social media are men, and most of the victims are women.

The second essay mentions Herland, a utopian novel from 1915 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, about a peaceful society that consists entirely of women, who have somehow learned to reproduce without men.  Three male visitors come, with attitudes ranging from clueless to hostile, and when the men come along, the women think they're doing a bad job of running their society.  One of the men marries one of the women, and there's a sequel where, as the reader can guess, their son ends up leading the society.  Beard follows this by discussing how women in powerful positions have been undermined over the years.  She gives several examples of strong women being presented negatively in Greek mythology and literature.  Medea and Clytemnestra are strong characters, and leaders in their society, but they murder their children or husband.  There are the Amazons, who are presented today as strong female warriors, but in the Greek myths were killed or subjugated by the male heroes.  Athena is an example of a powerful female figure in Greek culture, but she is depicted as masculine in nature, and being born from the head of Zeus without a mother.  She is also a virgin, which went against the Greek ideal of women who were meant to produce children.  Above all, there is the figure of Medusa, an image which has been used to attack powerful women throughout the years.  Beard mentions pictures on the internet of Angela Merkel, Theresa May, and Hillary Clinton, drawn with the head of Medusa, with snakes in their hair.

Powerful women today are held to higher standards than men in similar positions.  When they make mistakes, people are much less forgiving than they are of men.  Beard mentions two British members of Parliament who made misstatements in the media.  For the man, the attitude was that he'd do better next time.  For the woman, there were doubts that there would be a next time.  In this case, though, the doubters were proven wrong, and she has become quite successful.  But it's true that women have a harder time reaching the highest levels of power, and when they do, they're described as breaking down barriers or shattering the glass ceiling, as if they didn't belong there in the first place.

Beard says there are no easy solutions.  The purpose of the book is not to propose solutions, but to recognize the cultural and social biases against women in power in Western civilization throughout the years.  But she does say that the attitudes have to change, and that it is the structure of society that really needs to change.  She also says we should define power differently.  To be in power does not necessarily mean to reach the upper levels in politics or business, or whatever your field may be, but to make a difference in society, and to think about the followers, not just the leaders.  She mentions the three women who founded Black Lives Matter.  Many people do not know their names, but they have been able to accomplish much in a positive way.  I highly recommend Women and Power for anyone, not just women, with an interest in these issues.

Women and Power is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.