20 January 2018

Women & Power / Mary Beard

In this slim volume, classicist and demigoddess Mary Beard expands on two London Review of Books lectures she presented in 2014 and 2017.

"The Public Voice of Women" (listen to the original lecture here)

It will come as a surprise to few people that the desire to silence women did not start with the advent of social media. Although we cannot pinpoint the exact moment when it began, there is a rather splendid literary example in one of the best-known works of Ancient Greece: Homer's Odyssey, which dates back to approximately 3000 years ago.

In the Classical world, there was such a deep divide between expectations of what women's voices should be used for (domestic matters) and what public speech represented (power as an integral component of masculinity) that the rift still has not been completely bridged.

Even now, in our supposedly enlightened days when self-expression has come to include both the spoken and written word, and the public sphere has expanded to include media and the internet, women who dare to speak in public (even more so on topics not typically within the female purview) are viewed with scrutiny and more than a shade of suspicion; their remarks are reported as "shrill" or "strident;" they whine in high-pitched voices, while men assert in deep tones.

These attitudes, assumptions and prejudices are hard-wired into us: not into our brains (there is no neurological reason for us to hear low-pitched voices as more authoritative than high-pitched ones), but into our culture, our language and millennia of history.

Without recognition of the validity of a woman's speech, she is effectively shut out from power. It has become commonplace to see women called "stupid" and much worse for simply expressing an opinion. They are routinely invited — in more or less polite terms — to "shut up," not infrequently with associated threats to secure that silence through physical means.

Alas, the advice given to targets of such remarks rarely goes beyond ignoring and blocking the offenders. Mary Beard urges us, as a society, to begin by questioning what constitutes the voice of authority. Simply shrugging off these modern-day silencers is not good enough; women must "put up or shut up" no more.

"Women in Power" (listen to the original lecture here or watch it here).

What is behind our society's issue with women in power? Why is it so difficult for them to attain it and, once they have done so, why are they almost automatically (and not always consciously) treated as interlopers by the media and the public?

It all has to do with the structure of power and how we view it — something we inherited from the Ancient Greeks. As Mary Beard made plain in "The Public Voice of Women," our patterns of thought and speech have their roots deeply in the Ancient World. Even thousands of years later, the division established at that time between women and power still infuses our reality, our culture and our imagination, to lengths we do not suspect.

Even the so-called "heroines" of Greek myths and literature (Medea, Clytemnestra, Antigone) make a tremendous mess as soon as they take charge, requiring men to swoop in, save civilisation from impending chaos, and put the poor inadequate creatures back in their place. In recent years, prominent female politicians have been represented as Medusa, the monstrous snake-haired Gorgon (a quick image search on the Web will produce numerous examples), a personification of female power and therefore of the havoc it will inevitably wreak — which must be incapacitated, decapitated by the male hero.

This served to justify the constraints placed by the Ancient Greeks on women in real life, and this is why society is so determined to exclude them from power. Indeed, the notion that women belong outside of power has such force that the very possibility of their accession to it comes across as an assault on a male preserve: they "smash the glass ceiling," they "storm the citadel."

How can we change this sad state of affairs? As ever, Mary Beard does not pretend to have simple solutions, but urges us to ponder and offers suggestions as to where to begin. This is one of the reasons why I love Professor Beard: she never says, "Here is what we must do," but rather "Here are some points we need to think about." Consequently, we need to question what power is, what shape it takes, who wields it. Power should not be something that one possesses, but a tool that can serve to improve things, as individuals as well as collectively.

You can't easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.

To my mind, Women & Power deserves to be viewed as A Room of One's Own for the 21st century.

I purchased this book online.

Rating: *****


On a related topic, I highly recommend watching this recent video by the always relevant and articulate Jean in which she discusses what makes an inspiring woman, with thoughts on power and influence.

For more Mary Beard, here is my playlist on YouTube.


  1. Et hop! Un autre ajouté à ma liste. Merci!

    1. Si ça t'intéresse, on en a récemment parlé à Radio-Canada : http://ici.radio-canada.ca/premiere/emissions/plus-on-est-de-fous-plus-on-lit/episodes/398529/audio-fil-du-mardi-16-janvier-2018


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