Sunday, November 12, 2017

Women and Power - Mary Beard

I saw this book mentioned on Twitter, and thought it sounded interesting - it's stitched together from two lectures Beard gave; one in 2014, one earlier this year, both commissioned for the LRB lecture series at the British Museum. The first is titled 'The Public Voice of Women' the second 'Women in Power'. A week after it was published (and having checked it was in stock) I had a chance to head off to my local Waterstones to buy a copy, couldn't see it, so asked at the counter.

Now I know Beard is popular enough that even my tiny Waterstones would have a decent supply of anything new she had written, and the helpful man behind the counter confirmed that. So many people had asked him for it that day that he thought he'd bring a pile back with him to keep by the till. As it was he couldn't because I bought the last copy he had that day. I think we were both surprised at the popularity of a short manifesto on sale at full price (a very reasonable £7.99) which hasn't, as far as either of us had noticed, had huge amounts of publicity. We were also both clearly pleased about it.

In 'The Public Voice of Women' she looks back to Classical Rome and Greece to explore how women's voices were silenced and dismissed in a way that's carried through the millennia. Telemachus' words in the Odyssey when he tells Penelope to go back to her room, that it is his role to have the power, and specifically the power of speech in this household, have clearly carried through the millennia. Given that the classics have been the bedrock of a certain sort of education pretty much forever, it makes sense that these attitudes have become so deeply ingrained in our society.

I'm curious about the need Homer perceived to mention that Telemachus chose to exert his authority over his mother in this way, along with other examples Beard gives. Is it a pre-emotive warning to women to keep quiet and know their place, or discomfort at how vocal they were? The few examples of women speaking publicly suggest they were anomalies. Either way it's hard to have power if you're silenced - and one of the things that I most admire about Mary Beard is that she refuses to be silenced by online abuse, but instead chooses to confront it in exactly the way women are generally taught not to.

'Women in Power' struck even more of a chord, not only because in it, Beard takes a good look at the way Hilary Clinton has been treated whilst it's still so fresh, but because she questions what power should look like suggesting that "you can't easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure". This is something that I've thought a lot about over the last few years in terms of what success is, why we so often talk about it in terms of sacrifices that need to be made, and why we still define it in the same fairly narrow terms, or accept the same pathways to finding it.

I've only read through 'Women and Power' once, I need to think about it and read it again, maybe follow up on some of the further reading - all of those things. For all it's brevity there's a lot to think about here, and the exhilarating thing about the book is that it really does makes me think about the issues it raises. It also makes me want to share it with others - and that it was selling out in my local bookshop shows I'm not alone in that excitement.


  1. I hadn’t come across this, so thanks for pointing it out. I think I must have been very fortunate in working all my life in either primary education or training primary teachers because I have only rarely come across men who assumed they automatically and if right had the power and then there were always enough powerful women around to ensure that they soon learned the error of their ways. It does me good to be reminded that my path though life has been the exception rather than the rule.

  2. It's an interesting book, she makes some interesting points, and draws equally interesting parallels with the classical world. My working experience has been a bit different, it's mostly been selling wine, where the dynamic is slightly different because the customer is king but as I get older (mid 40's now) I notice more patterns in behaviour, and realise things that I had assumed were specific are more general. They're often little things - such as if I'm standing next to a male colleague, even if he's a 17 year old boy who knows nothing of wine, new customers will automatically defer to him, because Wine knowledge is clearly still considered a male thing. It doesn't bother me because they soon learn, but it's interesting, I'll get asked about things that are seen as female (cooking questions) but despite a uniform that makes my specific role explicitly clear, not the wine. Another example was a conversation a friend overheard about a man who went for a job interview. He was staying in a hotel the night before, went for a drink in the bar and got talking to someone who turned out to be on the interview panel. He made a good impression and got the job. Now he may well have been the best person for that job, but that informal conversation helped and it's probably not something that would have happened if it had been a woman, who would have been less likely to drink alone anyway. Yet another one was my mums shooting instructor who told her after years in the job the real difference between men and women's shooting is that men are surprised when they miss, women when they hit something (that certainly chimes with my own experience). They're all little things that hardly matter, but in the end do hold us back. One example that Beard uses is how we use words like shrill to describe women's speech, but not men's. The connotations are negative, and help keep us quiet.

    It was the second essay that really interested me though. Thanks to social media, particularly Instagram, I'm much more aware of people being successful in different ways. Knitting has been an eye opener, thanks to Ravelry it seems there's a generation of people (mostlybwomen, also men) who can be very successful through selling designs in a way that would have seemed inconceivable when I was at school. I also see all sorts of artists doing exciting things and making a living out of it. It's the 'if you can see it you can do it' thing. What I saw as a young woman, and what I was told about the path to success wasn't very inspiring, and didn't sound right for me. What I see now is altogether more interesting.

    1. The question of associated language is definitely the case. While my work has been with primary education my research area is narrative organisation, which has brought me into contact with the world of linguistics and there are countless studies which support what Beard is saying.

    2. First, thank you for bearing with that long rambling reply whilst I tried to organise what I'm thinking. Beard talks far more about the associated language, and makes a compelling argument. There's also the pleasure of seeing an argument put together so well in this book - it's a job well done all round.

  3. I'm looking forward to reading this book a lot -- even if one does agree with all she says (in this context I suspect I shall agree with everything!), she is an excellent communicator with a passion for the ancient world, and that's what a subject area often seen as male (and elitist) really needs. I can see how you would draw such a parallel with the world of wine. :-)

  4. The world of wine is interesting in this context. There are women all through it doing great things and getting plenty of respect for it. Certainly in the U.K. a lot of the best known wine writers are female, and they really have been influential, plenty of MW's are women (I don't know the exact statistics, but there doesn't seem to be a shortage of them), wine buying teams for the major retailers seem to have a fairly even split, and there are plenty of very talented female winemakers too. On the shop floor though the perception from the customer is still that it's a male area.

    Mary Beard is excellent, and it's hard to disagree with anything she says here, so it's an excellent manifesto, and much more positive then some of the things I've been reading in the media recently.