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Reviewed by Liz Dexter

Women and Power by Mary Beard

Mary Beard is described as being ‘Britain’s best–known classicist on the inside front flap of this book. She’s also known for having experienced her unfair share of vileness and opprobrium from internet trolls seeking to silence her both for being an expert and, in particular, for having views on gender-related issues. Here she addresses the deep-rooted causes of this outcry and behaviour, looking back to the ancient world but also through the ages of literature and action and to the modern day, examining why things happen and what we might be able to do about them. The two sections are called ‘The Public Voice of Women’ and ‘Women in Power’ and are beautifully, clearly and passionately yet calmly written.

The book had its germ in two lectures Professor Beard did for the London Review of Books in 2014 and 2017. She explains in the Afterword that she resisted the urge to do too much tidying of the originals, simply updating some of the political stuff in the first lecture to reflect more current events and opinions, for example on Theresa May. There are good, detailed, but not intrusive references and even an index in this beautifully produced little book.

In the Preface, Professor Beard sets out that she is going to look at how the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans can help explain our world, because, ‘When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice’. She then opens ‘The Public Voice of Women’ by describing Telemachus’ silencing of his mother, Penelope, in The Odyssey, as a demonstration of the deep roots of the silencing of women in the public arena. I will mention two things here: one, it is useful to know something about the classics when reading this, although the author is very clear and does explain things; and there are great illustrations from artworks – pots, paintings – scattered very liberally through the book, which serve as excellent reminders of what is happening in the text. This last does mean that the text is quite short, but not a word is wasted and it packs a real punch. It’s also worth mentioning that she also makes it clear in the Afterword that not everything we do and think goes back to the Greeks, and that it’s worth studying The Odyssey for more than the roots of misogyny, being scrupulously fair.

Following the discussion of The Odyssey, we have an exposition of a range of classical texts – Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Maximus’ Notable Deeds and Sayings and others – moving on through Shakespeare’s re-imaginings of some of them, and the way in which they silence women or describe when women are allowed to speak (when acting like men or, very rarely, when speaking (just) for other women, basically). She then reminds us that although these cultures are distant and our methods of government different now, the roots of public speaking still lie within them, and she then gives clear examples of how women have had to be androgynous (Elizabeth I, Mrs Thatcher) or rewritten by men (Sojourner Truth) if they have been allowed to vocalise in public, or they have only been allowed to speak on ‘women’s issues’ (elsewhere, Professor Beard asks whether these issues are in fact only ‘women’s issues’ at all). She then comes bang up to date with Elizabeth Warren’s silencing in the senate, popping back through literature to discuss Henry James’ and others’ attitudes towards women speaking out. The call here is to become aware of ‘the processes and prejudices that make us not listen’ to women, and these are examined, too, now taking examples from Professor Beard’s own online treatment by trolls. She makes the interesting point here that we are exhorted to not give trolls and abusers any attention, but just stay quiet and block them, thus silencing ourselves, effectively.

Professor Beard can find no solution to this problem. She mentions how women still feel they have to adopt an androgynous position, but also the alternatives that again reach back to ancient times: Ovid’s Lavinia weaving her story into a tapestry, for example, or Fulvia’s treatment of the head of Cicero, suggesting the ancients were determined to raise ‘questions about the nature and purpose of speech, male or female’ and that we should do this, too.

At this point, one lecture ends and the next begins. In ‘Women and Power’, Professor Beard looks at how standard cartoon images of professors and other powerful people tend to be male and how women are seen to be outside power structures in some way, intruding upon them, shown by language like ‘storming the citadel’ and ‘shattering the glass ceiling’. She goes back again to the Ancient Greeks and finds that the power of women in Greek myth is undermined and, again, silenced. Both Clytemnestra and the Amazons are masculinised and Athena is dressed as a warrior and didn’t even have a mother. Women are separated from power and even powerful images such as the head of Medusa are subverted for use in undermining women, for example in cartoons of Trump and Clinton (she makes the point here that a female comedian lost her job for portraying Trump’s decapitation, but images of Merkel and Clinton as Medusa abound).

When looking at what to do here, things do get a little less focused. Professor Beard suggests we actually look at power itself and what that means, citing examples of the three women who founded Black Lives Matter and Theresa May’s separation from the clubbable males. Stronger is the idea that while gradual change will ‘almost certainly’ take place, this is not enough, or fast enough. She’s not sure that the traditional narrative will be beaten quickly. But she’s given us a lot to think about in the meantime.

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Liz Dexter, who blogs about books, Iris Murdoch and running at Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home, is a proud feminist and egalitarian who is glad she knows her classics and is going to buy this book for a few friends for Christmas.

Mary Beard, Women & Power: A Manifesto (Profile Books / London Review of Books, 2017). 978-1788160605, 115 pp.; ill., hardback.

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