Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard

Dame Mary Beard is an academic who, curiously for a Classicist, is regularly called upon to do battle on the interwebs against trolls who doubt her authority and mock her appearance. Her experiences lead her to deliver the speeches contained in Women & Power: A Manifesto about how Western culture has sought to silence women since the days of Homer. Beard’s examples from history, literature, and art have created one of the most erudite calls to action I have ever read.

Women & Power contains two speeches, delivered in the early and mid-2010s. This brief book is really only about 90 pages of actual text, written in a highly readable style that I devoured in about an hour. I could easily hear Beard narrating in my head as she meandered through ancient and recent history to make her case that women in the West have never really been allowed to speak in the public forum. Women who do try to speak up for themselves are played for comedy (as in Lysistrata) or, more often, viewed as unnatural creatures who need to be silenced as soon as possible, such as Clytemnestra. More recent examples include the horrifically misogynist abuse hurled at Hilary Clinton, Theresa May, Angela Merkel, and even Margaret Thatcher.

A badass portrait of Clytemnestra, by John Collier (Image via Wikicommons)

Over and over, Beard connects scenes from the ancient world to the modern world. Telemachus telling his mother, Penelope, back to weaving so that the men can talk links to the way women are relegated to talking about “women’s issues” (that are really everyone’s issues). The mutilation of Lucretia easily connects to #MeToo and the way women are faced with prohibitive consequences for discussing how they were sexually assaulted. Beard even finds examples of how the voice of power and authority is always described in masculine terms and how this early cultural condition still impacts how women are frequently criticized for the tone of their voices; we are often called shrill because our voices are usually at a higher pitch.

Because Women & Power contains just two speeches, I was left wanting more. I wished for a full length treatment of the themes Beard introduces. Also, though she does have a few nods to intersectionality, this is a very white book. Still, in spite of its limitations, I found Women & Power to be a useful introduction to the silencing of women. If nothing else, it’s nice to know that we aren’t just imagining things when women are ignored, shunted to the side, and criticized simply for the natural pitches of our voices. There’s a lot of history we have to overcome. Women and trans women, let’s speak up!

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