'Women and Power: a manifesto', by Mary Beard: a review
Mary Beard, classics scholar, Cambridge University lecturer, blogger and Twitter-storm survivor, has put together two of her lectures on women and power into a must-read manifesto . This is a strongly and historically supported analysis of the history of the voice of women and the relationship between women and power.
Her first lecture draws on a range of early Greek and Roman sources to explore the notion that women have been systematically silenced over the millennia. In perhaps one of the earliest Western texts, Homer's The Odessey, the character of Telemachus makes very clear his mother's position in the house. When asked if the men could change their choice of music, Telemachus said to Penelope: "Mother, 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 of me most all all; for mine is the power in this household." (pg4) Similar comment about the appropriate silence of women can be found in many other ancient texts. But it is not only in the ancient world that we find such advice. Beard challenges some of the primary sources in the Middle Ages, particularly those attributed to women. In 1588, Elizabeth I said: "I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too." But did she? Beard tells us that these words were written down almost 40 years after the battle, and written by a man who would have had a particular axe to grind. Can you imagine the Queen of England calling herself feeble? The daughter of Henry VIII? Not I!
In the second lecture, Beard asks the question: How have we been taught to look at women in power? Why do concepts of "power" exclude women? She uses various Greek examples to highlight how women who appear to be powerful, are actually not. Antigone and Medea are actually held up as "monstrous hybrids", women who abused power rather than used it. The chaos they create is a lesson for all women: do not exceed the limits of your position. You may be thinking of the Amazons (this legendary group of women had a renaissance in the recent film adaption of Wonder Woman - the island with no men to stuff things up!) as a challenge to such traditional strictures. But, no. The purpose of this myth, according to Beard, was to create a 'bogey (wo)man", and it was the duty of every Greek man to protect the world from such a feminine anathema. The modern world does not escape from Beard's attentions. She comments on the recent American Presidential election, where images of Hilary Clinton were transposed onto the head of Medusa. A quick google search reveal some pretty horrendous examples of such images blazoned on t-shirts. Clinton was not alone though. Angela Merkel and Theresa May have all been likened to Medusa. Why? What is the underlying message here? It can only be that these women are 'monstrous hybrids'. So, have we moved far from the Greek concepts of power?
She finishes her manifesto with some encouraging examples of women and women's groups (eg the women who started #blacklivesmatter) who continue to demand power, demand to be heard and simply ignore the 'mansplainers' and the critics. So how does all this fit in to a study of ancient history? In a brilliant conclusion, Beard writes: "...looking harder at Greece and Rome, helps us to look harder at ourselves, and to understand better how we have learned to think as we do."
source: Beard, M. (2017) Women and Power: a manifesto, London: Profile Books.