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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Book review: Mary Beard explains why trolls are just ancient misogynists

This timely volume of classics is an academic yet accessible manifesto on how women have been silenced throughout history and continue to be so

Mary Beard, Oxford professor, feminist and writer. David Levenson / Getty Images
Mary Beard, Oxford professor, feminist and writer. David Levenson / Getty Images

Three years ago, the well-known British classicist and public intellectual Mary Beard gave a lecture at the British Museum entitled “The Public Voice of Women”. Earlier this year she delivered a follow-up, “Women in Power”, which immediately sold out – I tried, and failed, to get tickets. I wasn’t particularly surprised I missed out. A professor of classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, and the classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement, Beard’s books – which include Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town and SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome – manage to be both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, and she presents TV shows as well as authoring the popular TLS blog A Don’s Life.

The flipside of such success is that she regularly gets mansplained to, "lectured on Roman history on Twitter" – as well as receiving the worst kind of misogynistic abuse. For every woman who professes her opinion – nay, her expertise – on a subject, it would seem, there’s a whole host of internet trolls – usually men – ready to, at best, undermine her and, at worst, threaten to permanently silence her.

Women & Power: A Manifesto is comprised of Beard’s two lectures. It’s a slim volume – notes, index and all, only 116 pages – thus the more cynical among us might regard it as a publisher’s money-making ploy, but this ignores the importance, and the welcome clarity, of the content therein.

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Read more:

Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara sings for the voiceless

Twitter trolls and our depressing age of unenlightenment

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Beard traces these contemporary attempts to silence women back to the very start of western literature. The “first recorded example of a man telling a woman to “shut up”; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public,” she informs us, was 3,000 years ago, in Homer’s Odyssey. Penelope and Odysseus’s son Telemachus tells his mother – who has ventured into the palace’s great hall, where she’s telling a bard to sing a happier song – to be quiet and return to her private quarters: “speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household”.

As Beard goes on to explain, it isn’t simply that men don’t want to listen to women speaking in public; silencing women is part of being a man, and 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”. Telemachus uses the “muthos” to refer to “speech”, which, in Homeric Greek, Beard explains, specifically “signals authoritative public speech, not the kind of chatting, prattling or gossip that anyone – women included, or especially women – could do”.

Something similar is happening today when misogynists accuse women of “whining”; it’s an idiom that “effectively repositions women back into the domestic sphere”. Cue a whistle-stop, but extremely illuminating tour through literature – from Tereus’s rape of Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, after which he cuts out her tongue so she’s unable to denounce him; the confession of androgyny that’s necessary for Elizabeth I’s reported address to her troops in 1588 in the face of the Spanish Armada: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too”; through to Henry James’s silencing of Verena Tarrant, the young feminist campaigner in his 1880s novel The Bostonians, “keep your soothing words for me”, says her suitor Basil Ransom.

Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard. Courtesy Profile Books
Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard. Courtesy Profile Books

By the time Beard gets to the abuse Jacqui Oatley received when she became the first woman commentator on the British TV show Match of the Day, she has demonstrated that the threats and insults women today receive “fit into the old patterns […] 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”.

Not only fascinating, with unsavoury serendipity it’s also all chillingly relevant in light of the #MeToo campaign that’s currently sweeping social media in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein sex allegations. With such a flood of stories being unleashed, the question, of course, is what happens next. As the writer, director and actor Sarah Polley put it in The New York Times last month, “I hope that when this moment of noisy sisterhood dissipates, it doesn’t end with a woman in a courtroom, being made to look crazy, as these stories so often do.”

This, however, is where Beard really comes into her own. She isn’t satisfied with simply explaining how women have been silenced; she wants to know how we might go about being heard. As it stands, this is still very much about women making all kinds of compromises in order that they can be accommodated by the power structures that be. The lessons Margaret Thatcher took to lower the timbre of her voice so as to be taken more seriously – ie. to be seen as more male – and Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton dressing in trouser suits in imitation of their male counterparts.

This isn’t good enough, Beard argues: “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?”

She calls for a “decoupling” of power and prestige, arguing that we need to start thinking of power as an “attribute” rather than a “possession”, thus allowing for the power of followers, not just that of leaders. This, she suggests, could thus have an effect on all of those who feel “voiceless” in society – not only women, she points out.

We’ve been inundated – in the very best way – with feminist essays and manifestos of late. From Rebecca Solnit through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we can all pick our go-to female role model.

There’s something about Women & Power that ensures it stands out from the rest though. Beard’s is a manifesto firmly grounded in rigorous academic study made legible for the masses, and her proposal for change as radical as it is reasonable and – we can but hope – realistic.

Women & Power: A Manifesto

Mary Beard

Profile Books and London Review of Books 

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