Book Club: Mary Beard’s Woman & Power

Each issue, London Runway’s very own Book Club discusses their favourite book of the month. For our fourth recommendation, Cara Balen reviews Mary Beard’s Woman & Power: A Manifesto.

Do you feel like you need a little bit of feminist wisdom in your life? Or do you like ancient mythology and would like to find out more about it? If so, Mary Beard’s Woman & Power: A Manifesto is the perfect book for you this month.

Beard, a scholar of Ancient Roman Civilisation and Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, explores stories from the Age of Antiquity, and from them extracts important lessons that relate to the 21st Century. In particular, Beard sheds light on the way women were portrayed in this era. From hypothesising about plays, such as Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, to musing on myths like Medusa and the Amazon Warriors, Beard covers a whole host of ancient tales. In all of these narratives, women have been told that their voices shouldn’t be heard. In fact, Beard starts the book with the ‘first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’’ in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. Throughout this fascinating book, Beard asks the reader the question: how have these women been silenced, and why does this still happen to this day?

Beard intertwines the classical with the contemporary. She starts with one of the oldest existing pieces of literature, and casts an eagle eye over a whole history of women who have been immortalised through poem, play, or parable. Beard argues that the very same patriarchal views that kept even the most powerful women quiet before the dawn of Christianity are still at work today. By reflecting upon the way that women in the public eye are constantly criticised and scrutinised, it becomes easy to see that the sexism faced by Penelope at the start of the Odyssey, when she is told to ‘shut up’, has not gone away over time. Women have been told to sit down and shut up for over 2000 years.

This book is a captivating account of the relationship between women and power, for Beard suggests that the very definition of power presumes the exclusion of women. Powerful people have deep, authoritative voices, a commanding presence, and cool rational thinking. This is in direct opposition to the common conceptions of women, who are seen as passive and are constantly criticised for having whiney voices and being overly emotional. You only have to Google the word ‘powerful’ to see that ‘manly’ is its synonym. As a consequence, women in all facets of society face the problem of being seen as unable to hold positions of power or authority.
Beard’s narrative strikes a personal tone as she details the distressing threats she receives each time she speaks publicly. Unbelievably, Beard was described as whining by a British magazine, when tweeting about a horrific insult she received. It is as if they were trying to prove her point!

But this vile sexism isn’t just directed at Beard, of course: women in positions of power are constantly berated for being out of place. An example that stands out in my mind is what the Guardian called the “verbal attack” on Congresswoman Alexandria OcasioCortez by Congressman Ted Yoho in front of the New York State Capitol. Yoho called AOC a “f***ing b***h” after pointing his finger in her face and calling her disgusting. AOC responded in a speech that has since racked up millions of views on YouTube, in which she stated “this issue is not about one incident. It is cultural. It is a culture of a lack of impunity, of acceptance of violence and violent language against women, an entire structure of power that supports that”. The fact that Yoho felt he could dehumanise and belittle AOC stems from the general belief that this kind of behaviour is acceptable towards women. It comes from the conviction that any woman in a position of power can be spoken down to, because ultimately, she does not belong. Beard brings what is readily accepted within our society into question, and gives her readers the tools to expose these misogynistic attitudes for what they really are.

My favourite part of Beard’s brilliant guide to women and power is her rereading of the famous myth about Medusa. With terrifying snakes for hair and literally petrifying eyes, Medusa is the archetypal female antagonist. It came as a surprise to me, whilst reading this book, that she was actually turned into a monster as a result of Athena’s anger after Medusa was raped in a temple of Athena. This puts a dark twist on Medusa’s fate, making it all the more grim that Perseus was tasked to track and kill her. Medusa has often been seen as a symbol for women who disobey patriarchal authority. Beard includes depictions of female political figures with their faces superimposed onto artworks of Medusa. Angela Merkel and Hilary Clinton both get the Medusa treatment, and one goes so far as to depict Donald Trump as the valiant Perseus vanquishing the decapitated head of Clinton. It is no wonder, then, that Luciano Garbati’s statue, a reimagining of this mythic tale called ‘Medusa with the Head of Perseus’, has become a symbol of feminist strength to some.

This book means a lot to me, because it helped me to realise that I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree on gender and the law. It really opened my eyes to the way in which power is defined, and how this definition is complicit in keeping women out of the public sphere. Although Beard often focuses on Ancient literature, do not be mistaken in thinking that these throwbacks to an earlier time have nothing to do with the world as we know it today. It is a manifesto for tearing down antiquated notions of authority. Reading this book will empower you to see power in a feminist light, and learn some history on the way!

If you decide this is the book for you here are some ways to support independent book shops:

  • supports local bookshops on an online platform making it easy to shop for a variety of books
  • Wordery is an alternative online bookshop which offers free worldwide delivery and vows to help bookworms find their new favourite book
  • Blackwells is an academic independent bookshop which has grown from Oxford to other parts of the UK but hasn’t lost the charm of its welcoming and helpful staff
  • World of Books is a second-hand online book retailer that buys good quality unsold books from charity shops and delivers them to your door

You can read more of Cara’s work by following @Balencara on Twitter

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