‘Women and Power’ took me by surprise. Admittedly, I never expected Mary Beard to go beyond her sphere of academia so coming across a book about power by a classicist is interesting, to say the least. The book is more a booklet and I found myself finishing it within a couple of days. This is no boast of my reading speed – the book is only 128 pages. Having had no background reading to recommend me to the author, I expected it would chart women’s rise to power through the context of politics, the workplace and so on. What I found was something slightly different; Mary Beard speaks to her strengths by taking a classical view of women’s power. She takes us through a journey of Greco-Roman history of the perception of women and their depictions throughout well-known texts such as Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. Quite relevantly, she connects how much of that perception is still very present in our society today through the media and politics.
‘Women and Power’ contains examples of how women’s access to power has always had obstacles to obtaining it, usually from the men holding it and thousands of years later, women may have made progress in attaining voting and employment rights, but the story around power still hasn’t changed because its framework hasn’t. In fact, power has been sculpted in such a mould by its sculptor that it was never intended for women and Beard does a brilliant job of demonstrating how that begins with a woman’s voice. Apparently our voices have been our most powerful and threatening entity and it is precisely this threat that results in Philomena’s tongue being ripped out to prevent her from speaking of her rape.
On face value, the recounting of Greco-Roman mythology seems rather boring and tedious and I was rather puzzled at why we were speaking about women’s voices, but having witnessed how women are shouted down, told to shut up, stay in their place as docile mutes, Mary Beard has quite cleverly gone to the root of the problem of Western male attitudes towards women. Essentially, those who tell women to shut up espouse the same arrogance that Telemachus did towards Penelope when he told her to do the same.
Quite notably, there’s a brief foray into politics where the dress codes and behaviours of women who have held positions of power are analysed – Margaret Thatcher apparently lowered her voice’s pitch to avoid seeming too feminine, while Hillary Clinton was often dressed in shapeless trouser suits. These examples are important to cite as they exemplify that women have had to appear ‘masculine’ or lose their agency and identities to display their professionalism to be considered powerful. Thus we hit the crux of the issue with power itself.
The problem with transcribing lectures into books is that they don’t offer the profundity and nuance that’s necessary to do the topic any real justice. In that regard, I find ‘Women and Power’ rather frustrating because it feels incomplete and unfulfilled. Women’s voices and their relationship with power requires a chronological charting through history with relevant examples for the next generation of women (and men!) to learn from and prevent history from repeating itself.
While this is barely a book, I found it offered me food for thought in an area that I had never given any due thought. It’s essential reading and unique in its classical perspective. I only wish it had been a little bit longer and detailed.
- I borrowed my copy of ‘Women and Power’ from Borrowbox.
- Publisher: Profile Books
- ISBN: 9781788160605
- Number of pages: 128