A Classicist Takes on the Patriarchy
Women & Power - Mary Beard
For those unfamiliar with her, Mary Beard is an English classist and historian who is, perhaps, one of the best-known experts on Ancient Rome and the perspective of the commoner in society, which sets her apart from many of her contemporaries. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that she’d choose to take on a topic as thought-provoking as the oppression of female speech going back to classical times.
That’s an interesting topic, and there’s maybe no one more qualified to discuss it than Beard. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t do that as well as the reader might hope. Adapted from two public lectures Beard has given on the topic, Women & Power: A Manifesto doesn’t quite hit the mark, in terms of a satisfying exploration of a timely topic. The pocket-sized book includes two essays; The Public Voice of Women, and Women in Power. Each essay focuses on how, going back to classical literature, a critical and devastating tool of the patriarchy has been the ability of men to silence the voice of women, preventing them (sometimes in violent, grisly ways) from the very act of speech. Throughout both essays, Beard, sometimes a little clumsily, relates stories like the doomed Lucretia, the de-feminized Clytemnestra (who was later assassinated by her own children), the Greek male fantasies of the Amazons and, finally, the Medusa herself, who appears frequently in any misogynistic discussion of any woman in power. Beard attempts to analogize these women to our current women in power with an emphasis on how the very act of speech is (and has always been) recognized as a dangerous tool for those who would oppress women.
Unfortunately, these essays don’t quite get there. The comparisons aren’t drawn out or expanded on enough to be meaningful, and, while the topic itself is fascinating, these essays don’t adapt very well to a book format. As lectures, I suspect these discussions may have been more engrossing, but as a book, it feels like Beard just barely scratches the surface of a discussion that’s far more dense, and - in our modern era - necessary, than Beard accomplishes here. It’s a worthwhile, short read, but my hope is that Beard would revisit the topic at greater length at some time in the future.