Women and Power by Mary Beard
‘When it comes to silencing women, Western Culture has had thousands of years of practice.’
This book was based on two lectures delivered in 2014 and 2017 for the London Review of Books. In these lectures Mary Beard argues that the sets of assumptions, attitudes and behaviours that are used to exclude women from positions of power and influence have their origins in the Classical World.
Beard begins with an early example, that of the son of Odysseus and Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus. When Penelope suggests that the musicians in their home play a happier tune in place of the sad one they were currently performing, Telemachus orders her to leave and get on with her spinning and weaving. This was an early example of a woman being told to ‘shut up’. Public speech, opinion and authority were the preserve of men and defined them as such. Women’s speech was a private matter, inconsequential and featuring ‘prattle’ and ‘gossip’. This reflects women’s position in Ancient Greece and Rome; they had no status or a voice in the running of both of these cultures and were kept firmly in control and in the domestic sphere. The thought of women having a public role equal to men was viewed as at best laughable, and at worst a threat to the social order and stability of the state. Women’s voices were acceptable in specific circumstances in Classical culture as victims and martyrs. On the other hand characters such as Antigone, Clytemnestra and Medea in Greek literature, who attain positions of power, bring chaos, death and destruction to all as a result.
These negative attitudes towards women holding position of power became hard-wired into western political life and its culture. Men’s deep voices represented gravitas, authority and wisdom. Women’s voices, in contrast, ‘shrill’, ‘strident’ and ‘whinging’ represented pettiness, instability and disorder. This view diminishes and disempowers women, reducing them to marginalised figures. Beard illustrates women’s marginalisation with a Punch cartoon featuring Miss Triggs, who makes an excellent suggestion in a meeting only to have the chair thank her and ask the men in the meeting if one of them would be good enough make the same suggestion.
Of course, women have made progress in education, the professions and in politics, but they still have to negotiate the internalised prejudices of western society towards women in the public sphere. Margaret Thatcher famously took elocution lessons to lower her voice to sound like an authoritative man and be taken seriously. A female accessory, her handbag, was weaponised and the verb ‘to handbag’ entered the language. Trouser suites play a similar role creating an aura of authority for politicians such as Angela Merkel and Hilary Clinton. Beard argues, however, that merely mimicking male tones and fashions is not the answer to women’s marginalisation in public life. She further notes that the use of language with phrases such as ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ and ‘breaking down barriers’, emphasis women’s exclusion from positions of power; they are the exceptions and not the norm.
Women who break traditionally male spheres, whether politics, business or the media can find themselves facing the ‘Miss Triggs’ problem, condescension or ridicule to undermine them. Outright hostility is the other major hazard faced by women in public life and it has become a blight on the lives of many women with the growth of social media. Beard has been a target of trolling and online abuse herself, including death threats, for simply having a point of view and expressing it. She received a barrage of abuse after an appearance on the BBC’s Question Time when she gave an answer to a question, using empirical evidence and research, which contradicted the opinions held by some of the audience. She acknowledges that some trolls can be just mischievous children, or people who are, frankly, drunk, or who have moments of inhibition which they come to regret later and apologise for. However, some simply do not like the fact that a woman is expressing her thoughts on a public platform. One of the problems with social media, Beard goes on to say, is that it promised the democratisation of public discourse but does not deliver it. Many Twitter accounts of politicians and other leaders are run by assistants so the account holder many never read any tweets. This can lead to frustration and anger; it is not only women who can find themselves voiceless and feeling disenfranchised.
Other ‘Twitterstorms’ highlight the fear and indignation felt by some men of any women moving into areas strongly associated with men. When the Bloke’s Bloke, Jeremy Clarkson, was dismissed from his job presenting Top Gear for an assault on a member of his crew, a rumour circulated that he would be replaced by writer and comedian Sue Perkins. The response to this on social media was so extreme that Perkins had to temporarily suspend her Twitter account. Beard notes that women in public life can and are treated far more harshly if they make errors and get things wrong. Women have been deluged with gleeful accusations of stupidity and incompetence whereas a man would be ribbed and mocked but would not be thought of as fundamentally stupid.
I think that the current trend of taking language meant to be inclusive and using them as pejorative terms, ‘Woke’ and ‘politically correct/political correctness’, seeks to disempower and silence women, and for that matter, people from other backgrounds and sexualities. Deriding a point of view as ‘woke’ or being a part of a ‘woke agenda’ can shut down differing opinions and dismiss people who have, in the past, been marginalised and ignored by those who hold power and influence. Thus a woman got a top job not because of her suitability, talent and experience, but to meet a quota or because it’s politically correct. The fact that in the past the same woman, with the same skills, would have been subject to such things as marriage bars or exclusion from the social circles of, for example, the Golf Club or the Gentlemen’s Club (no women allowed as members) is ignored and unacknowledged.
How to change all of this? Beard comments that: ‘the big issues that I have been trying to confront are not solved by tips on how to exploit the status quo.’ Power is spoken of as an elite, prestigious possession held and structured mainly by men. Women cannot easily fit into this structure, so the structure of power needs to be reassessed, to look at is as an attribute rather than a possession, ‘to power’, instead of ‘holding power’. Above all Beard wishes for women to have the right to be taken seriously and not subject to mansplaining. Women have an important contribution to make to public life and policy making and Women and Power provides an important call for change.
In the afterword of the new edition of Women and Power, Beard briefly assesses current events in the light of the #MeToo movement, and the ongoing problem of trolling and double standards in the treatment of women in public life. It seems we still have a long way to go.
Written by Janet - Library Assistant
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