I was torn between two different books for this month’s challenge, to read a book without a picture on the cover, my eventual choice and H.G. Wells’ The Rights of Man – both uncharacteristically non-fictional, and (I will admit with some shame) not actually from the library; they’ve been sitting on my shelf for more than half a year, while I’ve looked longingly at them, but have ultimately found myself too busy with other books. ☹️ I am pleased, therefore, to have finally made the time to read at least one of them (despite
breaking stretching rules which I set myself), and that book was…
WOMEN & POWER
A write-up (and slight update) of two lectures that Beard gave in 2014 and 2017, which discuss ways in which Western society tries (and often succeeds) to keep women out of power and delegitimise those women who manage to achieve it regardless – and how those same methods have been modelled in antiquity, from Homer’s Telemachus telling his mother off for speaking amongst men, to Perseus, lauded for decapitating the monstrous-but-still-powerful Medusa.
The first chapter, The Public Voice of Women, is primarily a study of women as public speakers – or the lack of them. Beard begins with the example I mentioned earlier, where Telemachus tells his mother to go away and leave the talking to the men at the beginning of The Odyssey, and goes on to talk about various other women in antiquity (both historical and mythological) who have tried to speak up outside the home, and been dismissed, or ridiculed, or seen as un-feminine because of it. The thing that I found most interesting in this first essay was actually the exceptions that Beard gives us; examples of the rare times when the classical world considered it acceptable for women to be given a voice. Specifically, when denouncing a rapist, or discussing “women’s issues”, or representing a group that is only made up of other women – but never when speaking on any issue that might be thought to concern society as a whole.
Afterwards is the 2017 lecture, Women in Power, which draws heavily on the tale of Perseus and Medusa as an example of powerful women being seen as a threat to be defeated, illustrated by the many, many depictions that exist of various female politicians as Medusa – most notably Hillary Clinton, with one particularly striking image showing Trump-as-Perseus holding up her severed head. This chapter also discusses the tactics that women in power use to make themselves be taken more seriously – often by making themselves seem more masculine. Beard compares this with classical figures like Athena (among others), who, by taking on an un-womanly role, became something other than a woman; she could be a woman or she could be powerful, but to be both was a contradiction in terms.
I wouldn’t really qualify Women & Power as the manifesto that it claims to be, as it doesn’t really offer any suggestions on what can be done to rectify this tendency of society, but it is a very interesting collection of observations, and will undoubtedly open a few eyes. Personally, I leave this book with a re-discovered appreciation for those women who speak out, and are brave enough to bear the consequences, and a vague desire (which may or may not pass) to read Herland, a book that Beard refers to a few times, about an all-female utopian society.
[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]