REVIEW: Women and Power – Mary Beard

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Author: Mary Beard

UK Publisher: Profile

Genre: Non-fiction, feminism, gender theory

Buy now: ebook | hardcover

To anyone who has been a woman in society in the last ten years, a lot of the topics covered in Mary Beard’s book will not come as a surprise. Women and Power are the collected texts of two lectures she gave, with a preface and afterword for context, and they deal with women in politics and the workplace using her own experience and classical history as a touchpoint.

Evidently the issues mentioned can be traced back to Classical Rome and Greece, but the reason I specify particularly the last ten years as a time period is that she mentions specifically the way the internet treats women – both discussing her own experiences on Twitter, and the treatment of female politicians in recent years. Beard touches on the history of women’s rights, but her focus is on how they stand now, in today’s society. Each lecture is framed as a chapter – the first looking at the way women have been silenced in public, political and professional spaces; whilst the second considers rhetorical aggression against women in positions of power, and the assumption of masculine traits associated with this.

The first chapter lays the foundations for the second. Of the two, I found it the less affecting, partly because the idea that men – consciously or otherwise – attempt to silence women in society is a bit of a ‘no duh’ news item. Beard writes as you would expect a Professor to write, her prose is engaging, fluent and easily readable, so despite the lack of revelations in the chapter it was still enjoyable to read. What I particularly liked was the way she drew it back to her area of expertise, linking it to Classical history. She begins with a scene from the Odyssey, with Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, telling his mother shut up and go back to her weaving. Penelope, ever the epitome of the dutiful wife and mother, does so; but the example leads Beard into a discussion of male dominance of discourse, down to even the language used to describe it. This covers women who forced their way into the role of orator who were described by contemporary historians as ‘monstrous’ creatures without clear gender, and notes that women are only considered acceptable in this role if they are advocating for ‘women’s issues’, rather than anything which may be of a concern to men.

This follows into the second section of the book, which examines particularly the position of women in politics, and also aggression towards women in art using mythology as a basis. I found the exploration of violence against Medusa as symbolic of control against women as a whole more upsetting than I anticipated – particularly when Beard produced examples of Medusa with the faces of prominent female politicians photoshopped on. Whilst I am not unaware of the violent rhetoric used against female politicians, I had not seen this particular brand of violence – Hillary Clinton’s face pasted onto the decapitated head of the Gorgon, raised aloft by a triumphant Donald Trump, for example – and it shook me more than I expected. Beard’s voice is calm, more calm than I would be, when she observes the nature of violent, misogynistic rhetoric against women, presenting her evidence in the measured way of someone who is simply presenting the facts of the issue, rather than making an argument.

I am not sure what argument could be made. The book is billed as a  ‘manifesto’, but it reads more as a ‘state of the union’. I thought her points about female politicians having to ‘ape’ certain masculine traits to be taken seriously was eye-opening – Hillary Clinton’s trouser suits, for example, or Theresa May working to bring her voice lower in pitch, and how this links back to the masculine representations of Athena – but broadly it was an observation of the world at large, rather than a manifesto on how we could work to change it. She acknowledges change is needed, reflects on how far feminism has brought us in a relatively short space of time, but does not offer much in the way of working to change it. But the issue is clearly repeated as societal, and particularly controlled by men as a generalisation. The people who are the problem will not buy this book. The people who are aware of the problem will find in it a clear, erudite demonstration of what they already know, with perhaps the new insight of exactly how far back these issues stretch. It doesn’t offer change, but that’s because change won’t come as simply as that, as we are seeing daily.

Briefly:

  • Easy to read, perfectly pitched for the layman, even though Beard’s knowledge and expertise is clear.
  • Well-researched and the examples are perfectly selected, drawing fascinating links between contemporary feminism and Classical gender perceptions.
  • Perhaps mis-titled as a manifesto, but I feel this is a book I am glad I have read, and I think it will be an important document in years to come, pinpointing the state of the world as is.
  • Based on public lectures, the subject matter is kept to the surface level, rather than any in-depth analysis being produced.

Rating: 3/5 – it was an easy, fascinating read, but I would have liked more to get my teeth into. I came out of it wanting more in-depth theory and discussion on the subject.

 

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