by Fran Withrow
If you want to think more about just how deeply entrenched male dominance is in our society, I invite you to peruse “Women and Power: A Manifesto.” The premise of this thoughtful read is that the tradition of male authority in Western society goes back to Greek and Roman times.
Well, that’s depressing.
This slim book that you can devour in an afternoon is a compilation of two essays based on lectures given by author Mary Beard. They read in a relaxed, personal way, and as I turned the pages, I could easily imagine Beard at a podium while I sat in the audience, listening closely.
Beard, who lives in England, draws repeated parallels between the misogyny experienced by women in ancient times and the ways women are silenced in the world today. In “The Odyssey,” for example, Telemachus tells his strong and courageous mother, Penelope, to stop talking, go upstairs and do her needlework. Orating is men’s work. Compare that with the recent directive to Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was admonished to “sit down” when she attempted to read a letter written by Coretta Scott King.
Other famous women from the past are also laid out as examples of how women’s voices are silenced. From Philomena, who was raped and then had her tongue cut out, to Medusa (who, Beard purports, is a symbol of male mastery), women have a long history of being pushed aside by men. Medusa, whose head was cut off to silence her, is a perfect example of how men treat women who challenge authority. It is no coincidence, says Beard, that Trump supporters superimposed Hillary Clinton’s face on Medusa’s severed head during last year’s presidential campaign.
While women have made slow progress since ancient times, there are still many roadblocks toward gender equality when it comes to obtaining and wielding power. Beard demonstrates how modern women like Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher attempt to bridge the gap with pantsuits (rather than dresses) and voice lessons (since lower voices are associated with authority). I have often heard women say that their higher voices do not command respect. Yet Beard maintains that this is a societal construct rather than a biological one.
The struggle for power is personal for Beard, who describes her own experiences with gender injustice as well as what she has observed in her country. She discusses the painful radio interview of two Parliamentary candidates (one male and one female) and the responses they received from the public. I can tell you the differences were glaring and discouraging.
Beard also ponders the meaning of the word “power.” Does this need to be changed so women are not excluded? Is the current understanding of power so deeply embedded with male imagery that we must completely dismantle it and start over?
Though she offers no clear answer to the problem of women and power, Beard raises many provocative points. I closed the book with a lot to ponder, and a deep gratitude for all the women who continue to struggle for leverage in a world still largely controlled by men.
“Women and Power”
by Mary Beard
W.W. Norton and Co.