Women and Power by Mary Beard

Women and Power is a short LRB-published book based on two lectures given by Beard, one on The Public Voice of Women and one on Women in Power.

Beard leaps through history expertly linking Telemachus in the Odyssey telling his mother to go away and shut up because the men are talking to similar (if differently worded) experiences of men talking over women in boardrooms worldwide. Or female politicians photoshopped into the face of Medusa (Caravaggio’s or Cellini’s being the examples stated), as an example of modern audiences using classical tropes as a means of showing male dominance over female attempts at power.

This is a short book that doesn’t look at length at any of these comparisons, as you’d expect from their creation as non-academic lectures, but this makes the book extremely accessible and gives Beard a platform to talk about misogyny in modern life. I found it reminded me of an Ezra Klein podcast (sorry, male voices again) in which a series of interviews he and his interviewees have reiterated the point that issues like misogyny or even animal rights are not single-human moral issues as much as they are systemic society-wide issues. As such, Beard’s situating of misogyny in a grand arc of history make the extremely important point that we have the option to continue to reinforce these problems by operating in these societal structures, or to challenge them as and when we can. As such, it can make an example of the vile shouting of some idiot man on Twitter be seen not as the powerful agent of the patriarchy, but as a symptom of a diseased society. The latter of which seems like something we could, possibly, recover from.

Continuing Beard’s experiences on Twitter, she briefly references examples of men explaining Roman History to her. Obviously, a first thought is ‘what idiot would do that?’ But secondly, there’s the more insidious consideration that not only did a man (many men in fact) feel confident enough to lecture a Cambridge Classics Professor about the subject that she has devoted her life to, but they did it in a public forum, knowing that all their friends and family could be watching. The first of those is an example of the ridiculous things a patriarchy produces (dozy, over-confident men). The latter shows that it’s the society itself that the man is operating in that gives him the confidence to continue, and it’s that that is both important, and hard, to change.

Beard doesn’t, despite the ‘manifesto’ subtitle, give an awful lot of solutions to these societal problems (solving misogyny in a 100 page book would be a big ask, even for someone of Beard’s talents and capabilities), but her role as a classical historian in showing these problems in their broader context is both important and a very enjoyable read.

(Image is the really rather creepy Fulvia With the Head of Cicero by Pavel Svedomsky)

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