Inside Story

What is power?

Books | Mary Beard writes with characteristic verve about the long history of men silencing women

Sara Dowse 18 December 2017 1028 words

Puncturing pomposity: Mary Beard in the BBCs Mary Beards Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit.

Women & Power: A Manifesto
By Mary Beard | Profile Books | $19.99 | 128 pages

To be honest, my introduction to Mary Beard came not through her many books and articles but via the television screen. It was 2012 and Professor Beard had invited me and an audience of millions to join her on a tour of Ancient Rome. Picture it. Here was an “expert,” a Cambridge don, riding her rickety bike through the crazy traffic of the Italian capital, her long grey hair flowing free behind her like some ageing hippie’s. Apart from what she imparted about everyday life in the ancient metropolis, she herself was a wonder: the hair, the crimson anorak and, if memory serves me, a pair of sneakers. Secure in her knowledge and accomplishments, she seemed to delight in puncturing every known pomposity. You could see it in her smile and the sparkle in her eyes.

Now that, I thought to myself, is power.

Yet for all who cheered her on, exulting in the breadth of her scholarship and her unassuming if iconoclastic delivery, there were those who were appalled. And because by that time we had crossed into the twittersphere, they seized the opportunity to make their hostility known far and wide. She was subjected to a torrent of tweets, and so was the BBC. It was a sobering experience, but Beard, being Beard, fought back. And opened her own Twitter account.

Not least because of this experience of horrendously misogynistic trolling, and the milder criticisms she received for refusing to submit to the makeovers expected of female television personalities, Beard directed her formidable energy to analysing the strategies deployed for silencing women through the millennia. She found that their origins — for Westerners, at least — lay back in the ancient Greco-Roman world that is her specialty. To lay out her case, she gave two important lectures sponsored by the London Review of Books, which are now available in this volume.

The first, ‘The Public Voice of Women,” is an expanded version of a piece that appeared in the LRB in 2014. It opens with Homer, and specifically the passage in The Odyssey in which Telemachus, the missing Odysseus’s son, exhibits his manhood by ordering his own mother to shut up. Beard quotes: “Mother,” he says, “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 of all; for mine is the power in this household.”

Not just the cheek of a teenage son, this, but a motto of our patriarchal culture. How many variants have been applied in our own day, some 3000 years later? How many boys, at whatever age, were told they were now “the man of the house” whenever their fathers happened to be away? I blush to recall I once spoke such rot myself. And what middle-class woman hasn’t experienced what Beard, referring to the Riana Duncan cartoon, calls her Miss Triggs moment? There’s a meeting — it could be any meeting, of a committee, department or board — and the chair commends Miss Triggs for her “excellent suggestion” but goes on to say, “Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.”

The cartoon, which first appeared in Punch in 1988, is reproduced in the book, along with older, patently more gruesome treatments. We have the rapes of Lucretia and Philomena, in which the former suicides and the latter has her tongue ripped out, and Jupiter’s turning his lover, Io, into a cow, rendering her incapable of anything more than a “moo.” Those few women who are allowed to speak are only permitted to do so on issues deemed of special interest to their gender. Others who dare broach other subjects are dismissed as masculine, and thus not really women.

Women & Power went to press in September this year, too early to cover the #metoo phenomenon. We have yet to see how far-reaching its impact will be, but its potential for dismantling the pact of silence in which we women have sadly been complicit (mainly for reasons of survival) is indisputable. Countless male celebrities and men in other key positions have found themselves without a job, and we’ve just seen a Democrat elected to the US Senate from Alabama after allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour on the part of the Republican candidate. But I suspect Beard would warn that efforts to silence women are longstanding, and urge us to brace ourselves against another possible backlash. It’s been the custom, after all.

For, as Beard sees it, the matter of women’s power remains extremely complex and conflicted. As in ancient Rome, women achievers can still be subjected to the kind of vicious treatment dished up to Hillary Clinton or Julia Gillard — all the greater the closer they get to breaching the bastions of male power. And too many women succeed only because they’ve chosen to conform to the “masculine template.” Others, says Beard, like Margaret Thatcher and her handbags, “turn the symbols that usually disempower women to their own advantage.” But male displeasure, even if held in abeyance for a time, can erupt in ferocious retribution, the classic symbol being the severed head of Medusa. One of the most telling of the book’s illustrations is an internet meme from the 2016 US presidential election: a revamped Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Cellini, with Donald Trump as Perseus and Hillary Clinton’s hapless head dangling from his extended forearm. Chilling stuff indeed.

Beard has no ready prescription for how half the human population can achieve the power that is inarguably our due. Instead she prods us to ask one central question: what exactly is power? That has set me thinking like nothing else has for a while. So don’t be fooled by its size — there’s a lot to unpack in this one slim volume. Moreover, it’s a lovely object, everything a book should be. Just the right size to slip in a pocket or hold in the hand, full of illustrations, and with an index to boot. And, on paper as on television, Mary Beard has a beautiful voice. Here, too, it triumphs. ●