Women & Power: A Manifesto review: Misogyny’s long roots

Understanding the silencing of women’s voices in the modern day by tracing its history to Rome and Athens

December 09, 2017 07:30 pm | Updated 07:30 pm IST

Women & Power: A Manifesto
Mary Beard
Profile Books

Women & Power: A Manifesto Mary Beard Profile Books ₹499

Cambridge University professor and author Mary Beard is best known for her vividly written, fresh perspectives on Greek and Roman history, but in recent years her work has gained further relevance to the state of modern Britain and beyond, particularly in the wake of the Brexit referendum and the ensuing debate on immigration and race.

An avid, articulate and witty user of Twitter, she has not hesitated from taking on some of the myths propounded by the right, which have often sought to use history to draw modern ‘conclusions’. When Arron Banks, a controversial businessman who bankrolled much of the pro-Brexit campaign, claimed that it was immigration that felled the Roman Empire she took him down deftly, and politely on Twitter, when he attempted to explain Roman history to her.

Recently, she and other classicists faced a slew of abuse for pointing out that some of the Roman soldiers stationed in Britain, including senior commanders, could have been black and from diverse backgrounds. Beard has been unwavering in articulating her stance through all these controversies, despite being inundated with personal abuse and threats. However, she and others were quick to note that while she was not the only classicist to voice these perspectives, as a prominent female figure she became a particular target of trolls.

Her response to this has been defiant: using her knowledge of the classical world to provide a historical context to some of the challenges facing women in the 21st century, particularly as social media becomes a tool to threaten and attempt to silence. “My aim here is to take a long view, a very long view on the culturally awkward relationship between the voice of women and the public sphere of speech-making, debate, and comment: politics in its widest sense… to be sure ‘misogyny’ is one way of describing what’s going on. But if we want to understand — and do something about — the fact that women, even when they are not silenced, still have to pay a very hard price for being heard, we need to recognise that it is a bit more complicated and that there is a long back-story,” she writes in Women & Power: A Manifesto .

She begins with what she describes as the “first recorded example” of a man telling a woman to “shut up” in Western literature: Homer’s Odyssey , written almost 3,000 years ago. Its treatment of Penelope, Odysseus’s ‘loyal’ wife, and her relationship with her son Telemachus, who regularly dismisses her, highlights “right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere.”

“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,” young Telemachus tells his mother, dismissively.

Professor Beard’s command of classical literature provides her with ample ammunition well beyond this instance — and the text is peppered with historical examples — such as the Roman poet Ovid’s epic Metamorphoses , which repeatedly draws on the silencing of women in the process of transformation (the theme of the text). The only exception to this treatment of women speaking out came to those who were martyrs or victims. Or when they posited themselves as a man, she says, pointing to the alleged address by Queen Elizabeth I in the face of the Spanish Armada in 1588… “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too,” she is believed to have said, though Beard feels it is far reflective of the sentiment of the time than her actual words.

The result of all of this was an “active and loaded exclusion of women from public speech — and one with which a much greater impact than we usually acknowledge on our own traditions, conventions and assumptions about the voice of women. What I mean is that public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender…”

Breaking stereotypes

She moves back and forth between the ancient and present day, drawing on her own experiences too: ‘strident’, ‘whinge’, ‘whine’ and ‘stupid’ are words often used in the media to describe women by those who disagree with them. Or there is the regular depiction of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton each as a Medusa-like (the mythical sister whose glance could turn humans to stone decapitated by Perseus) figure. Or the treatment meted out to black Labour front bencher Diane Abbott, who was far from the only politician to get into a muddle over policy costs live on radio or TV during Britain’s recent general election, but was the one who faced the biggest torrent of personal abuse.

Through her analysis, Beard also attempts to chart a way forward and the need for a fundamental think on the “rules of our rhetorical operations… we need to go back to some first principles about the nature of spoken authority, about what it constitutes and how we have learned to hear authority where we do,” — something that even some writers in Greek and Roman times attempted to do with varying degrees of success. “What we need is some old fashioned consciousness-raising about what we mean by the ‘voice of authority’ and how we’ve come to construct it.”

Professor Beard’s focus may be Western literature and its Classical origins, but her analysis, conclusions and perspective on the route ahead are ones that women — and men — across the world can likely relate to, as has been the case with other modern feminist classics.

Women & Power: A Manifesto ; Mary Beard, Profile Books, ₹499.

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