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.