Saturday 27 January 2018

Mary Beard's "Women & Power: A Manifesto" by Janie Hampton

Professor Mary Beard, © Caterina Turroni
Professor Mary Beard is Britain’s most famous classicist and The History Girl’s History Girl. Her book Women and Power: A Manifesto is a reminder of  the progress, or lack of, that women have achieved in the last hundred years.
This highly readable book of 100 short pages is based on two lectures Mary Beard gave for the London Review of Books at the British Museum in 2007 and 2014. She uses classical examples to remind us of the deep strata of ugly gender prejudice that underlie what women are still up against. “This is not,” Beard insists, “the peculiar ideology of some distant culture, however distant in time it may be.”
Telemachus tells his mother Penelope to keep on weaving, Athenian pot, 500 BC
She takes the story right back to the first known account of misogyny: Homer’s Odyssey, composed almost 3000 years ago. Telemachus, the teenage son of Odysseus, ordered his middle-aged mother Penelope to be quiet and go back upstairs to her weaving, and leave the men to get on with the important job of talking to each other. Haven't we all been there? I am old enough to have been to dinner parties where after the cheese course, the women withdrew to the drawing room to chat about childcare and recipes, leaving the men to drink port, smoke cigars and discuss world affairs (or so we assumed). My innocent husband once tried to join us women, but was physically barred from leaving the dining room by our host! Telemachus was learning the art of being a real man, which included telling women to be quiet. How many women readers of The History Girls have sat on committees, and either not been allowed to speak or had their bright idea taken up by, and credited to, a man?
Beard explores with wry wit and accessible language, the early history of misogyny and how it has been reinforced ever since Western “civilization” began. She gives the stories of three women who spoke up in the Roman forum. Unfortunately, according to the male Roman writing about her, Maesia "really had a man’s nature"; and as for Afrania, her speech was “yapping and barking”. Her demise in 48 BC was recorded, only because "with unnatural freaks like this" it was more important to record her death than her birth. The third woman, Hortensia, was only permitted to speak for other women, and not on behalf of men too. There are echoes here of modern governments that have Ministries of Women. “Look,” say the ruling men. “We have a Ministry for Women. We can’t possibly be misogynists." Like the dinner parties, the women are encouraged to knit and cook, leaving the men to govern the important things like the economy and war.
Demeaning language about ‘yapping’ women also continues today. In 2017, a Times headline screamed “Women prepared for Power Grab of London in Church, Police and BBC.” While men are awarded positions of power and authority, women have to grab them, pushing aside those unfortunate, less qualified men who previously gained the work or positions.
Little has changed in two thousand years. The image of Donald Trump as the Greek god Perseus holding aloft the decapitated head of Hillary Clinton as Medusa, was an unpleasant and graphic warning during the 2016 U.S. election campaign of how Trump would rule as president.
Donald Trump as Perseus with the head of Medusa depicted as Hillary Clinton, 2016.
Beard’s saddest observation is that women are their own worst enemies. Women often condone and reinforce misogyny, and behave and present themselves as "almost men." In 1588, Queen Elizabeth I is reputed to have encouraged her troops who were about to face the Spanish Armada, with the words, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” In other words, “Forget I’m a woman, I’m as good as a man.” She knew that only by ignoring her sex could she hang onto her power: with marriage and babies she would lose it. 
Elizabeth I rousing her troops at Tilbury, 1588.
She seems to be giving  'two fingers' to the Spanish.
Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May both reached their positions of high power by emulating men’s deep voices and long strides. Neither woman has behaved, at least in public, in a feminist or friendly way to other women, although they have both cleverly made use of a symbol of womanhood to reinforce their positions: Thatcher’s hand-bag became a weapon and May’s uses her kitten-heeled shoes to mollify. Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel both wear trouser suits, presumably to ‘blend in’ with the men. “Having women pretend to be men may be a quick fix, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem,” writes Beard.
Even though Mary Beard has broken through many of the barriers preventing women from achieving their potential, she still suffers abuse just for being herself. Without appealing for sympathy, she reflects on how she has been treated in both print and social media. She has not been judged on her skills or intelligence, but on what she looks like. The late food critic A.A. Gill commented not on the content of her television programmes but on her teeth, hair and clothes; and judged her to be "too ugly for television". Although undoubtedly hurt, (even tough, hard-working women have feelings) she fought back against "the blokeish culture that loves to decry clever women" and hoped to show young women that there was more than one way of being a woman, and of growing older.
Despite gratuitously rude men like Gill, Beard is both respected by her academic peers and admired by television viewers for her authenticity. In 2013, I saw her presented with “The Oldie Pin-up of the Year Award” at the smart London restaurant “Simpson's in the Strand”. In a forthright and witty speech to the male-dominated audience, she made no concessions. She was probably the only woman present not wearing lipstick, and certainly the only one in a comfortable grey cardigan.
Beard considers how the exclusion of women from power is culturally embedded, and how the views of male ancient Greeks are still repeated, in order to make gender violence seem normal. As Jacqueline Rose wrote in The Guardian, Beard describes “the poison of patriarchy as it drips into the body politic of what parades under the banner of civilisation.”
All round the world there are women who dare not speak at all, even when raped. Let’s hope that the news of sexual harassment from Hollywood and Westminster will not become tomorrow’s chip-wrappers. Those who support the ‘witch-hunt’ hypothesis certainly hope so. Beard notes that sexual predation is about power, and it is the men who usually have that; if they happen to be film producers or politicians, even more so.
Beard makes a plea that women should be allowed to make mistakes, and then pick themselves up without being pilloried. “If I was starting this book again from scratch,” she writes, “I would find more space to defend women’s right to be wrong.”
The conclusion that Beard comes to is a surprise. Women must stop trying to gain equal power because power itself is designed by men, and not what we really want or need. Society will only improve when power is redefined. "We don’t have a model or a template for what a powerful woman looks like,” she writes. “We only have templates that make them men." This brilliant and readable book will hopefully make us all wonder how can we help men to achieve equality for women. And ask, what would a world with articulate women allowed to speak look like? Would there be less violence? No rape, no guns? More equality?
Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard published by Profile (£7.99).
PS I have noted the irony that I have used Mary Beard’s father’s name – the patrilineal. Even journalists and academics model themselves against men!


Sue Bursztynski said...

Well, yes. We all use our father’s names. Pointless to use our mithers’ names because they too use their fathers’ names.

Robert Graves had a theory that the Odyssey was written by a woman(and wrote a novel, Homer’s Daughter, using that idea). He argued that there is an awful lot of domestic detail in the book, suggesting a female author.

Ruan Peat said...

Am still reading this but with all the current reflection on behavior and what was and wasn't allowed then and now this is a very timely reminder about what we should be wanting and not this draw to be as good as or equal too men!

Lynne Benton said...

Fascinating blog. Have always been an admirer of Mary Beard, but have not yet read her book. Many thanks for recommending it.