I gifted myself Mary Beard’s Women & Power: A Manifesto for my birthday. This book was very visually prominent when I was walking around in Copperfield’s Books in Calistoga. The cover itself powerfully attracted my attention. Mary Beard! That name is enough for me to grab the book off the shelf and run to the register. I am a fervent admirer of Mary Beard’s writings, talks and documentaries. No birthday dinner could taste as delicious as reading her books. No birthday party ever is worthy of the time compared with listening to her talking about Roman history.
This book consists of two essays: The Public Voice of Women and Women in Power. They are the written form of the two lectures that Mary Beard gave in 2014 and 2017. I am glad that Mary Beard did not make drastic edits to the texts. Reading these two essays was like having Mary Beard sit with me and talk to me directly about these topics. It is very direct and conversational.
I wrote a much longer version of this blog, but removed three main paragraphs. Ironically, it is about my experience as a woman of struggling to get my voice heard and navigating my way in some male-dominant environments. To be clear without any exaggeration, the negative experience is a fraction of my total experience. Reading this book helps me to see my own struggle in the historical context and somewhat lends me strength to have my own voice. Mary Beard put forward that if the power is exclusive towards women, power should be restructured. Repeating her exact words with my own voice is very liberating: if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?
I entertained the idea of carrying this book around with me. If I were to be silenced unjustly, I would open up this book and start reading out some passages loudly to myself and my offenders. Reassured by Mary Beard that one is fighting a battle that has been on for thousands of years by generations of women gives one more courage and strength than struggling alone, being labelled as far too ambitious and unfeminine, and occasionally worse, suppressed so much to question one’s own sanity.
The passages I find most thought-provoking and quintessential:
Women in power are seen as breaking down barriers, or alternatively as taking something to which they are not quite entitled.
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.
When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.
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. 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.
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 an idiom that effectively repositions women back into the domestic sphere (people ‘whinge’ over things like the washing up); it trivialises their words, or it ‘re-privatises’ them.
These attitudes, assumptions and prejudices are hard-wired into us: not into our brains (there is no neurological reason for us to hear low-pitched voices as more authoritative than high-pitched ones), but into our culture, our language and millennia of our history.
For a start it doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It is not what you say that prompts it, it’s simply the fact that you’re saying it. And that matches the detail of the threats themselves.
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. If that means fewer men get into the legislature, as it must do – social change always has its losers as well as its winners – I am happy to look those men in the eye.
But in every way, the shared metaphors we use of female access to power – ‘knocking on the door’, ‘storming the citadel’, ‘smashing the glass ceiling’, or just giving them a ‘leg up’ – underline female exteriority. Women in power are seen as breaking down barriers, or alternatively as taking something to which they are not quite entitled.
To become a man (or at least an elite man) was to claim the right to speak.
It is not just that it is more difficult for women to succeed; they get treated much more harshly if ever they mess up….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.
I cannot help recalling one male hairdresser’s advice to me a few years ago: if you want to be taken seriously at work, wear trousers not dresses. It was very well intended. I thanked him for it without disagreeing and continue with my own choice to wear dresses.