‘When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice’.
Mary Beard’s short but punchy publication is adapted from two lectures she gave, the first, ‘The Public Voice of Women’, being in 2014 at the British Museum and the second, ‘Women in Power’, early last year. Although only 115 pages long, Beard’s manifesto is anything but simple. Chronicling the history of the treatment of women in the public sphere from classical mythology to the present day, Beard writes concisely and clearly of the problem society still has with hearing women talk in what has always been considered ‘male’ spaces.
Beard begins her polemic at the very beginning of the tradition of Western literature with Homer’s The Odyssey and the first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’. Whilst Penelope is dutifully awaiting her husband’s return, her son – Telemechus – takes over as ‘head’ of the household. In a very public and insulting way, he orders her back to her room, to ‘take up [her] own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men’. It is this sentiment which still resonates today where women are regularly silenced either very publicly by the media or through sinister everyday interactions in homes, schools, work places and online.
Even seemingly harmless ways to describe how women speak – that both men and women use regularly – are drenched in misogyny. Discussing the verbs ‘whingeing’ and ‘whining’, Beard asks: ‘Do those words matter? Of course they do, because they underpin an idiom that acts to remove the authority, the force, even the humour from what women have to say. It is an idiom that effectively repositions women back into the domestic sphere (people ‘whinge’ over things like the washing up); it trivialises their words, or it ‘re-privatises’ them’. Even when women do have the courage to speak out publicly or inhabit what is traditionally seen as male spheres, they undoubtedly have a higher price to pay because of it.
‘[…] if we want to understand – and do something about – the fact that women, even when they are not silenced, still have to pay a very high price for being heard, we need to recognise that it is a bit more complicated and that there is a long back-story’.
Looking at the world of politics, Beard wryly notes that even the UK’s first female prime minister – Margaret Thatcher – took elocution lessons in order to deepen her voice. ‘Public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of maleness’, writes Beard. To speak in public as a woman meant that you were, by definition, not a woman. And this can be seen even today. As Beard points out, many female politicians all over the globe choose to favour trouser suits over clothing that could be regarded as too ‘feminine’. Yet women still get judged for what they wear far more than men ever do, particularly women in the public eye, and they are still grossly underrepresented in public arenas.
Despite the gloomy and familiar rhetoric of the little progress women have made throughout the centuries, Beard writes in an often humourous and witty style. Instead of encouraging women to ‘knock on doors’ or ‘smash glass ceilings’, Beard calls for a redefinition of power itself – one in which women have an equal footing with men. Through clear, concise prose and well-placed pictures which illuminate her classical references, Mary Beard’s striking manifesto is a call-to-arms for women everywhere to stand their ground and take charge of their own relationship to power. But it is this aspect of her book that didn’t feel entirely fleshed out, which is no surprise considering the length. Although she briefly mentions the power of movements and followers to enact change – not just the traditionally ‘high end’ power that is bound up in national and international politics – such as Black Lives Matter, Beard does little to comment on what this ‘different way’ of getting things done entails. I wish she would have written a bit more about this, though I respect the fact that she didn’t want to alter or extend her essays too much from the original.
Women and Power is an incredibly informative book for its size, which can be read in one sitting. Encapsulating a whistle-stop tour of the classics and how history has treated, and continues to treat, women, Beard uses her own personal experiences of sexism and aggression she has endured online which adds a much-needed personal touch.
‘You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure’.