I first saw this book at the Getty Villa bookstore, when I didn't buy a bunch of physical books because I didn't want to carry them home, and was intrigued at the opening discussion about how Odysseus' wife Penelope's son told her to shut up when she voiced her opinion about her own future. Did I really read that opening correctly? Had I missed this when I was reading as a kid?
Yuuuuuuuuuup. I read it correctly. Yep, I missed it as a kid.
I picked up this book shortly thereafter from the library and read it quickly, it's a short book, essentially two essays from two lectures Mary Beard had given about women and, uh, power.
More specifically, the way women are seen in public discourse (not favorably) and in power (not favorably). Women have been dealing with being second class citizens for centuries, millennia even, of being told they are property or unfit or less.
Beard shows us the literature, gives us the quotes, demonstrates how over and over again power and the female gender do not go together historically. The concept isn't new, but it is finally, finally coming to the nation's, nay, the world's awareness.
My only gripe with the book is the subtitle, "A Manifesto." A manifesto is "a public declaration of policy and aims, especially one issued before an election by a political party or candidate." This book is a reflection, it gives no guidance or policy or direction from where we have been. I wanted the direction.
I recommend the book, yes, but read it as "this is how it is and was," not "here's a path to change."
Women, in other words, may in extreme circumstances publicly defend their own sectional interests, but not speak for men or the community as a whole.
As we saw with Telemachus, to become a man (or at least an elite man) was to claim the right to speak. Public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of maleness.
In the words many of us learned at school, she seems positively to avow her own androgyny: 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 –an odd slogan to get young girls to learn. The truth is that she probably never said anything of the sort. There is no script from her hand or that of her speech-writer, no eye-witness account, and the canonical version comes from the letter of an unreliable commentator, with his own axe to grind, written almost forty years later.
A notorious recent case was the silencing of Elizabeth Warren in the US Senate – and her exclusion from the debate – when she attempted to read out a letter by Coretta Scott King.
Few of us, I suspect, know enough about the rules of senatorial debate to know how justified this was, formally. But those rules did not stop Bernie Sanders and other senators (admittedly in her support) reading out exactly the same letter and not being excluded.
Do those words matter? Of course they do, because they underpin an idiom that acts to remove the authority, the force, even the humour from what women have to say.
It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they do not hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it; they don’t hear muthos.
More interesting is another cultural connection this reveals: that unpopular, controversial or just plain different views when voiced by a woman are taken as indications of her stupidity.
It is not that you disagree, it is that she is stupid: ‘Sorry, love, you just don’t understand.’ I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called ‘an ignorant moron’.
And I've lost count of the number of times a guy has told a woman she should "read the paper," when she's the one who authored said paper.
How do I get my point heard? How do I get it noticed? How do I get to belong in the discussion? I am sure it is something some men feel too, but if there’s one thing that bonds women of all backgrounds, of all political colours, in all kinds of business and profession, it is the classic experience of the failed intervention; you’re at a meeting, you make a point, then a short silence follows, and after a few awkward seconds some man picks up where he had just left off: ‘What I was saying was …’ You might as well never have opened your mouth, and you end up blaming both yourself and the men whose exclusive club the discussion appears to be.
Why, yes, yes this was my experience at Twitter, thanks to Arnaud, who would routinely tell me no, but yes to the guy who repeated my words immediately after.
The regulation trouser suits, or at least the trousers, worn by so many Western female political leaders, from Angela Merkel to Hillary Clinton, may be convenient and practical; they may be a signal of the refusal to become a clothes horse, which is the fate of so many political wives; but they are also a simple tactic –like lowering the timbre of the voice –to make the female appear more male, to fit the part of power.
Ben Cody once commented to me that I dress very conservatively. I wondered about his comment, have looked at my standard outfit, and realized that, well, yeah, it is remarkably conservative: no hijab, but all of my body is covered with many layers, my clothes are unshaped, and nothing beyond my hands and head are exposed. I'm not sure when I drifted into my uniform, but I know it was a defensive response to cultural pressures I didn't want.
And it was that idea of the divorce between women and power that made Melissa McCarthy’s parodies of the one time White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live so effective. It was said that these annoyed President Trump more than most satires on his regime, because, according to one of the ‘sources close to him’, ‘he doesn’t like his people to appear weak.’ Decode that, and what it actually means is that he doesn’t like his men to be parodied by and as women. Weakness comes with a female gender.
"Weakness comes with a female gender." We all know Trump is weak, so go McCarthy and her parody!
But Athenian drama in particular, and the Greek imagination more generally, has offered our imaginations a series of unforgettable women: Medea, Clytemnestra and Antigone among many others. They are not, however, role models –far from it. For the most part, they are portrayed as abusers rather than users of power. They take it illegitimately, in a way that leads to chaos, to the fracture of the state, to death and destruction. They are monstrous hybrids, who are not, in the Greek sense, women at all. And the unflinching logic of their stories is that they must be disempowered and put back in their place. In fact, it is the unquestionable mess that women make of power in Greek myth that justifies their exclusion from it in real life, and justifies the rule of men.
Then she’s a virgin, when the raison d’être of the female sex was breeding new citizens.
Athena, warrior god, was portrayed as a man. Gotcha.
We have to be more reflective about what power is, what it is for, and how it is measured.
But I do wonder if, in some places, the presence of large numbers of women in parliament means that parliament is where the power is not.
Those reasons are much more basic: it is flagrantly unjust to keep women out, by whatever unconscious means we do so; and we simply cannot afford to do without women’s expertise, whether it is in technology, the economy or social care.
But this is still treating power as something elite, coupled to public prestige, to the individual charisma of so-called ‘leadership’, and often, though not always, to a degree of celebrity. It is also treating power very narrowly, as an object of possession that only the few – mostly men – can own or wield (that’s exactly what’s summed up by the image of Perseus, brandishing his sword). On those terms, women as a gender – not as some individuals – are by definition excluded from it.
You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘ to power’), not as a possession.
What I have in mind is the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually. It is power in that sense that many women feel they don’t have –and that they want. Why the popular resonance of ‘mansplaining’ (despite the intense dislike of the term felt by many men)? It hits home for us because it points straight to what it feels like not to be taken seriously: a bit like when I get lectured on Roman history on Twitter.
If I were starting this book again from scratch, I would find more space to defend women’s right to be wrong, at least occasionally.