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Jan/Feb 2018 Reviews & Interviews

Women & Power

Women & Power.
Mary Beard.
Profile Books and The London Review of Books. 2017. 115 pp.
ISBN 978 1 78816 060 5.

Review by Ann Skea


When it comes to silencing women Western culture has had a thousand years of practice.

Buy now from Amazon! Mary Beard is a renowned Classics scholar, and she knows how to present an argument in Classical style. So, she draws on Ancient Greek literature for her first telling example of the male response to an outspoken woman. Telemachus, son of Odysseus and Penelope in Homer's Odyssey, is still only a "wet-behind-the-ears lad" when he tells his "savvy, middle-aged mother" to "shut up." Penelope, who has waited for years for Odysseus to return from his voyaging, hears from her rooms a famous singer entertaining the men who want her to forget Odysseus and marry one of them. The bard is singing of the difficulties Greek heroes have in returning home, and Penelope, in tears, goes down to the assembly and suggests he choose a happier theme. Telemachus chides her and tells her to go back to women's work, the loom and the distaff, because discussion is the business of men and of himself most of all, since he holds the power in the household. "And off she goes," writes Mary Beard.

This could, of course, have been a teenager's response to having his mum interfere when he was having fun with the boys, plus a bit of teenage boasting and bravado. However, Mary Beard offers other ancient examples of women being silenced—literally in the case of Ovid's heroine Philomena, who had her tongue cut out by Tereus after he had raped her, so she could not tell anyone of the rape.

For centuries in Western society, there have been, and often still are, negative attitudes to women speaking out about rape. They have been shunned and shamed and treated as if the rape is somehow their fault—that they invited it by their behavior or their way of dressing. In general, too, there is still strong antagonism towards women who voice their opinions, and Mary Beard has personal experience of vehemence, rage, and threats being directed at her on social media every time she speaks in public.

Drawing on famous literature and art, Beard gives more examples of the ways in which powerful men have, over the centuries, refused to listen seriously to a woman's opinions. She notes how outspoken women are ignored and/or demeaned, offering as one modern example the "Miss Triggs question." In the now famous cartoon by Riana Duncan (Punch, 1988), Miss Triggs, who is shown as the sole woman at a committee meeting, makes a suggestion the Chairman describes as "excellent," but then adds, "Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it."

Women who become powerful in a male dominated society are spoken of as "impudent," "aggressive," "whining" freaks of nature, more male than female, as were the Roman women Maesia Sentinus and Gaia Afriana, who successfully defended themselves in Roman courts. And it is true that powerful women often do adopt behavior generally regarded as masculine. Beard includes a photograph of Angela Merkel and Hilary Clinton and refers to the "politicians uniform"—the trouser-suit—which many women in Western politics choose to wear. And she suggests Margaret Thatcher's handbag and Theresa May's "kitten heels" were and are symbols these powerful women perhaps adopted in order to subvert male stereotypes. Margaret Thatcher, she reminds us, undertook training in order to deepen her voice and make herself sound more authoritative. However, there are powerful women in politics who do not wear trouser-suits, and there are many public-speakers of both sexes who also resort to voice training in order to make their words more persuasive. Adolf Hitler notoriously practiced his speeches and gestures for this purpose.

Mary Beard's two lectures are persuasive, and ironically, perfect examples of Ciceronian rhetoric. She speaks in an easy, often colloquial, manner. She chooses her examples and illustrations carefully to support her argument. And she certainly presents a strong case for finding ways to change the established structures on which power is based. She does acknowledge the changes now allowing women more equal opportunity in education, business, and politics. And she does point out ways in which women in literature have made their voices heard. The examples she chooses from history and literature, however, are not comfortable ones. More often than not, her successfully powerful women, like Medusa or Clytemnestra, are, in her interpretation, monsters.

Although this book is slim, Mary Beard ranges widely through history, literature, art, and politics to discuss issues related to power, celebrity, and authority, and her talks left me with much to think about. Is it possible to change the power structure? What alternatives could we explore? Is it Classical literature which has shaped our society? There are many powerful women in myth (especially Celtic myth) and legend, who have also strongly influenced Western ideas. Maybe we might look there for new examples and strategies. There are anthropological, sexual, and social reasons for men to have feared women and sought to control them, and these, plus economic reasons, have shaped Western society. There is also, according to my son who works as an IT consultant in the business sector in Sydney, a great deal of female power in the workplace. In his quite varied experience, women are listened to and do have equality in the work place.

It is quite likely things are different, and that male dominance prevails in old academic establishments like the Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and in many areas of government. But this, too, is changing. It is clear, too: anyone, male or female, who becomes a celebrity and speaks in public is subject to abuse via social media and in media in general. Donald Trump is relentlessly lampooned, abused, and denigrated in the UK and Australian press. Perhaps the lesson, here, is to shun social media and resort to the self-protective strategy adopted by many writers: never read your reviews.

Women & Power is a beautifully presented small book with some interesting illustrations and some very thought-provoking and absorbing arguments, which are likely to occupy my mind and conversation for some time. And, no doubt, some stroppy teenager is very likely to tell me to shut up.

 

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