Women and Power: A Manifesto
By Mary Beard
Liveright. 128 pp. $15.95
Mary Beard, the erudite, energetic, and jolly professor of classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, knows a lot about women's public voices and the obstacles to female power. A celebrity in the U.K., she often appears on radio and TV, publishes best-selling books (SPQR, Pompeii), and writes a blog called "A Don's Life" for the Times Literary Supplement. She's also controversial. She's been trolled on Twitter and attacked in print. Beard always fights back, with humor and intellectual authority.
In the two essays that make up her new book, Women and Power, she shows, first, how women have been silenced in public life as far back as the Greeks and Romans, and, second, how ancient images of female monstrosity, from Clytemnestra to Medusa, have been endlessly recycled to undermine women's access to political power.
In the classical era, Beard writes, "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." Even now, women who speak forcefully in public are called strident or shrill. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand have been silenced in the Senate, insulted in the president's tweets. The snaky head of Medusa was used to demonize German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and, in a 2016 meme, Hillary Clinton.
Women have persisted. Some have adopted androgynous signals of leadership. Margaret Thatcher got speech training to lower her voice. Others wear pantsuits, a point Beard illustrates with an amusing picture of Clinton and Merkel greeting each other in identical uniforms, like reunited Shakespearean twins.
After a deft summary of the way women are silenced, interrupted, patronized, passed over, and ignored in debate, speeches, meetings, and discussions, she asks, "What's the practical remedy?"
"Like most women," she admits, "I wish I knew."
It's fun to read Women and Power. But no manifesto, or womanifesto, no individual woman's success, no intellectual analysis, can change the male power structure. It has to be a collective action. The American feminist achievements of 2017, from the Women's March to #MeToo, provide hope that we may be seeing a new wave of women's power, based on claiming public speech and political space.
Elaine Showalter is a professor emerita of English at Princeton University. This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.