Women & Power by Mary Beard Book Summary
Women & Power, A Manifesto by Mary Beard
Classics scholar and Cambridge professor Mary Beard explains that the misogyny women face today – from anonymous social media threats of violence to subtle acts of exclusion from systems of power – trace back to classical antiquity. Writing in an academic, yet lively and accessible style, she details how society constructed power to exclude women. Beard’s rousing survey of history urges readers to re-imagine what power could look like today.
- Ancient examples of men silencing women relate to contemporary events.
- The ancient Greeks viewed women who spoke publicly as androgynous and monstrous.
- People often don’t regard feminine-sounding voices as authoritative.
- Women today face threats when they speak out, as they did in the ancient world.
- Society punishes women more for their mistakes than it punishes men.
- Western society constructs power as existing outside the realm of the feminine.
- Women challenged men’s abuses of power as part of the #MeToo movement.
- Social movements demonstrate the importance of re-imagining power.
Women & Power Book Summary
Ancient examples of men silencing women relate to contemporary events.
One of the earliest examples of a man silencing a woman’s voice dates back 3,000 years, near the origins of recorded Western culture. In Homer’s Odyssey, the queen Penelope asks a bard, who is singing about the obstacles preventing Greek heroes from returning home after the Trojan War, to sing a happier song; her husband, Odysseus, is among these missing heroes.
Her son Telemachus silences her, saying, “Go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff…speech will be the business of men, all men, and me most of all, for mine is the power in this household.” Ancient narratives offer multiple such examples of men silencing women. These examples relate to contemporary moments of men excluding women from public speech. The stories also show that modern-day bullying – say, by posting threats on social media – and the abuse of women who disagree with men, or challenge existing authority structures, is not a new phenomenon.
“What interests me is the relationship between the classic Homeric moment of silencing a woman, and some of the ways women’s voices are not publicly heard in our own contemporary culture, and in our own politics from the front bench to the shop floor.”
When Englishmen created the House of Commons’ parliamentary rules and procedures in the 19th century, they drew from classical traditions. Rumor has it that Barack Obama’s speechwriters, likewise, gained inspiration from ancient statesmen and orators like Cicero. Ancient templates for public speech continue to shape contemporary conceptions of which kinds of public speech are bad or good. The exclusion of women from public speech, comment and debate has a complex history, and many classical ideas about gendered approaches to advocacy influence today’s discourse.
The ancient Greeks viewed women who spoke publicly as androgynous and monstrous.
In the ancient world, people regarded public speaking as inherently and exclusively masculine. Public speaking was innate to the social construction of masculinity, not femininity. When women spoke publicly in first-century Rome, one anthologist described them as “women whose natural condition did not manage to keep them silent in the forum.” When a woman named Maesia defended herself skillfully in the Roman courts, that commentator attributed her ability to the notion that “she really had a man’s nature,” and was androgynous.
“A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition not a woman.”
Ancient Greek myths about women who challenged men, such as Medea, Antigone and Clytemnestra, depict them as “monstrous hybrids” whom society must punish for “unnaturally” clinging to power. In Aeschylus’s drama Agamemnon, for example, Queen Clytemnestra rules her city while King Agamemnon is away fighting in the Trojan War. Aeschylus refers to her as having “manly purpose,” then describes her as trying to hold onto power illegitimately by killing her husband on his return. Her children restore the patriarchal order by teaming up to kill her.
People often don’t regard feminine-sounding voices as authoritative.
In Homeric Greek, writers use the word muthos to denote authoritative speech, in contrast with women’s private, domestic chatter. This notion continues to influence modern understandings of how a knowledgeable speaker should sound. People today view Western women politicians as lacking in authority or wisdom if they don’t imitate a deep, masculine-sounding voice.
As in the Ancient Western world, modern women in the political arena often feel they must take on more androgynous characteristics – such as imitating male vocal qualities – to command respect. For example, Margaret Thatcher underwent vocal training to change her high-pitched feminine voice to a lower, more masculine-sounding register, which her advisers felt conveyed more authority.
“What we need is some good old-fashioned consciousness-raising about what we mean by the ‘voice of authority’ and how we’ve come to construct it.”
The Romans described the voices of women who spoke out publicly in disparaging ways, comparing their speech to “yapping” and “barking.” Today, misogynists describe women who voice their opinions as “whining” or “whinging.” Given that women suffer underrepresentation in positions of political power, people must reflect on the role that gender bias plays in determining the types of voices they feel convey authority, and which ones they associate with impudence or lack of gravitas.
Women today face threats when they speak out, as they did in the ancient world.
Stories from the ancient Western world often feature female characters violently robbed of their ability to speak by men. For example, in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Princess Philomela’s rapist cuts out her tongue to prevent her from speaking of his crime. In Roman mythology, the nymph Echo loses her ability to express herself. As punishment for talking too much, Echo can only repeat other people’s words – never using her own voice – for the rest of her existence. These stories served as cautionary tales. If women dared to speak too boldly or to confront the patriarchal status quo, they would suffer violence or taunting.
“I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called an ‘ignorant moron’.”
Still today some men bully and threaten women who speak publicly in traditionally male-dominated roles, ranging from professional sportscasting to politics. For example, when Jacqui Oatley became the first woman in the United Kingdom to provide sportscasting commentary for the football program Match of the Day, male commentators called her performance “an insult to the controlled commentaries of men.”
Outspoken women frequently receive online threats of violence – including of rape or murder. Internet trolls take to Twitter, assaulting women who voice their opinions with threats such as a tweet directed to author Mary Beard that said, “I’m going to cut off your head and rape it.”
Some men bully women in politics when they try to speak publicly. For example, in the British House of Commons, male MPs taunt female counterparts loudly to drown out their voices. Underlying this abuse is a fear that women might legitimately challenge the patriarchal order. Ovid captures this fear in Metamorphoses, when Philomela tells her story of survival – despite no longer having her tongue – by weaving her saga into textile art and identifying her rapist.
Society punishes women more for their mistakes than it punishes men.
Women face an unfair double standard when they speak publicly and make mistakes. People will forgive male politicians for fumbling their words – take, for example, Boris Johnson’s clueless-sounding remarks during a 2017 interview on the Tory’s position on preventing racism within the justice system or expanding access to higher education. However, women face steeper criticism for their mistakes.
“It is not just that it is more difficult for women to succeed, they get treated much more harshly if ever they mess up. ”
While people tended to dismiss Johnson’s errors as acceptable forms of “laddish waywardness,” they proved less forgiving when UK MP Dianne Abbott became confused during the same election cycle when discussing figures relating to police recruitment. People ridiculed her, hurling insults such as “fat idiot” and “bone-headed stupid.” Women have a right to pursue success in traditionally male-dominated roles, as well as the right to make mistakes without engendering fiery chastisement.
Western society constructs power as existing outside the realm of the feminine.
Conventional definitions of power exclude women. History doesn’t offer a template for how powerful women should fill traditionally male-dominated roles. Women in those roles tend to imitate masculine aesthetics. Female politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel, for example, wear pantsuits to fit the image of a powerful person, which society holds as masculine by default.
The ancient Greeks viewed the powerful Goddess Athena as more masculine than feminine, depicting her in male warrior clothing and as a virgin born, not of a mother, but from the head of her father. When people conjure images of someone in power, such as a professor or a politician, those images tend to be male. A search for images of cartoon professors using UK Google Images, for example, produces an overwhelming majority of male characters.
Despite the fact that more women occupy powerful positions today than they did half a century ago – now taking on roles ranging from police officers to CEOs – these women are a minority of those in power. People often associate femininity with weakness, and masculinity with power. President Donald Trump complained bitterly, for example, about actor Melissa McCarthy’s parody of then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live, because he felt she made him appear “weak.”
“The point is simple but important: As far back as we can see in Western history, there is a radical separation – real, cultural and imaginary – between women and power.”
When the idea of female power does emerge in historic narratives, it exists predominantly as something men must suppress whenever it appears. The symbolism of the head of the Medusa, depicted in art from the ancient Greeks through modernity, captures the essence of this perceived threat to male power.
In one myth of Medusa’s origins, Poseidon rapes Medusa in Athena’s temple, and Athena punishes his victim – instead of Poseidon – by transforming Medusa into a monster with snakes for hair. Medusa gains power after this transformation, and anyone who looks at her turns to stone. A male hero, Perseus, decapitates her to strip her of this power.
Contemporary women challenged men’s abuses of power as part of the #MeToo movement.
In classical antiquity, men permitted women to speak publicly in two situations: when they were victims, describing crimes someone committed against them, and when they were about to die as martyrs. Early Christian women in Ancient Rome, for example, would give their testimonies before lions devoured them.
Media and public forums created spaces for women’s voices as part the #MeToo movement, as women described their experiences as survivors of rapes and sexual assaults perpetrated by powerful men in industries such as film.
“Thankfully, not everything we do or think goes back directly or indirectly to the Greeks and Romans; and I often find myself insisting that there are no simple lessons for us in the history of the ancient world…That said, looking harder at Greece and Rome helps us look harder at ourselves, and to understand better how we have learned to think as we do.”
While women have felt rightfully empowered to tell their stories – a difficult feat given that men served as gatekeepers to their success – powerful male perpetrators of these crimes won’t be held accountable unless society dissects the accused aggressors’ versions of events. What excuses are powerful men using to justify their actions to themselves and other people, and why don’t these excuses hold up anymore? It’s not enough for women to share their stories of surviving sexual harassment and assault; now society must collectively challenge the narratives powerful men rely on when they misuse their power.
Social movements demonstrate the importance of re-imagining power.
Power should no longer be the elite and prestigious realm of a minority of people, associated with leadership, prestige and celebrity. Social movements such as Black Lives Matter demonstrate the importance of defining power as something that exists in collaboration, among leaders and their followers. Few people had heard of Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors before they created Black Lives Matter, but they launched one of the most important social movements in recent history. Garza, Tometi and Cullors prove that ordinary individuals can challenge the status quo, and that women don’t need elite status to be powerful.
About the Author
Mary Beard, the classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement, is a classics professor at the University of Cambridge, an ancient literature professor at the Royal Academy of Arts, and a Newnham College fellow.