Book Review: Women and Power

Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard, is based on two lectures the Cambridge based classicist gave in 2014 and 2017. It opens with an introduction celebrating how far women in the west have come in the previous century. The following chapters then focus on why women’s voices are still routinely ignored or silenced, and why any woman holding a powerful position continues to be regarded as an anomaly.

Drawing on examples from ancient Greek and Roman times, the author argues that government, business and society are all structured to ensure that it is only men who are listened to on serious issues affecting all. Politics, the economy and wider global concerns are regarded as beyond the comprehension of the majority of women, but not men. The pitch of women’s voices is described as whining, the content of their conversation trifling. The fact that they dare join any weighty debate is mocked, whatever is said. Attitudes are ingrained.

“We have to focus on the even more fundamental issues of how we have learned to hear the contributions of women […] Not just, how does she get a word in edgeways? But how can we make ourselves more aware about the processes and prejudices that make us not listen to her.”

The widespread use of social media has led to women who express opinions being subjected to abuse. Even those men who regard themselves as supportive may not be granting women serious consideration. The term ‘mansplaining’ was coined for a reason.

“It is not what you say that prompts it, it’s simply the fact that you’re saying it.”

The second chapter opens by looking at a work of fantasy fiction in which a nation of women have existed alone for centuries until three American men stumble upon their utopia. By exploring how these women regard themselves and then their uninvited guests, wider questions may be asked about the cultural underpinnings of misogyny.

“How and why do the conventional definitions of ‘power’ (or for that matter of ‘knowledge’, ‘expertise’ and ‘authority’) that we carry round in our heads exclude women?”

Powerful women, to fit into the role they have attained, adopt tactics that make them appear more like their male counterparts – lowering the timbre of their voices or dressing in suits. Any weakness is regarded as a female trait. The structures of power have been built with the expectation that they will be populated by men. When women gain access they are treated as interlopers. When mistakes are made these women are subjected to prolonged public humiliation.

This is a short book written with the author’s trademark wit and wisdom. By looking back to ancient times and teachings she shows just how ingrained attitudes are and always have been. There are no easy answers offered to the problems presented. In recognising why such issues exist, the silencing of women can be challenged with affirmative action, calling out those who denigrate the contributions of half the population.

Women & Power is published by Profile Books. This review is of the hardback. A paperback edition, containing additional material, was released on 1st November 2018.

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Book Review: Wonder Women

wonderwomen

“There are so many attitudes that need to be adjusted, so many biases that need to be addressed”

Wonder Women, by Sam Maggs, is not the book for anyone who believes that a successful woman is one who is slim, beautiful, amenable and capable of snagging a husband. Successful women, like successful men, are individuals who achieve things for themselves, and this book introduces the reader to dozens of ladies whose work added significantly to their area of expertise. They were innovators, inventors and trailblazers despite the ire they encountered from the patriarchal system. Naturally, many of them were denied credit for their work. History grants accolades to straight, white men as if they are the only people born with brains and the ability to use them. As is demonstrated within these pages, that ability was often lacking when it came to dealing with the opposite sex.

The book is divided into chapters introducing the accomplishments of women of Science, Medicine, Espionage, Innovation and Adventure. Within each chapter, five women are profiled followed by a couple of paragraphs on seven more. Each chapter is rounded off with a Q&A from a current expert in the area discussing their experiences as a women working in a male dominated field.

To achieve their aims, women often had to use subterfuge. Sisters worked with their brothers, wives with husbands, professors with lesser qualified male colleagues. Ideas were willingly shared for scientific advancement leading to men claiming credit for discoveries. Papers by women detailing the exact same research and results, sometimes published years before, were ignored.

“I’m not surprised at what I’ve done. I’m only sorry I couldn’t have had as good a chance as a boy, and have been put to my trade regularly”

Men in every time, place and discipline underestimated their female colleague’s skills. In one example, a morse code operative training for a new role was magnanimously offered a booklet by her superior, that some of his boys had found helpful, as she may need its advice to proceed. He was unaware that she had written it.

I most enjoyed the chapters on areas where I have a personal interest – Science and Medicine. In Espionage and Adventure some of the women came across as morally suspect, although being nice has never been a prerequisite for achievement. There are plenty of men lauded for their contribution to the advancement of learning who may not have made the best of friends.

One statistic that I noted was that, of the 5 million US patents granted since 1790, only 5% have a women’s name on them. A sizeable number of the 95% resemble inventions conceived and developed by women that were rejected as the patent office could not believe a women capable. Expensive court cases proved that accepted ideas had been copied and stolen by male acquaintances. Many patent requests avoided mentioning gender to circumvent the ingrained belief in a women’s lack of ability.

Determined women created their own opportunities. Some disguised themselves as men, others travelled abroad to gain the training denied them at home. One women who persuaded a college to allow her to attend seminars was required to sit behind a screen lest her presence upset the roomful of men, poor lambs.

The writing is light-hearted and brisk but carries a serious message. It offers a reminder that delicate little lady brains simply need the education and experiences routinely afforded to men in order to equally achieve. Perhaps at some level men are aware of this, and that is what they fear.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk.

Feminism in the modern world

Written for a ReadWave challenge.

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” (Rebecca West)

Emotive words like feminism can be difficult to use. I would call myself a feminist, yet often find myself disagreeing with opinions professed by others who would also describe themselves in this way. For example, I do not believe that everyone should be treated equally at all times.

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There are occasions when I would not complain about a job advertisement asking for a man or a woman; for example, a play or television show that desires a particular gender for a part. For every rule there will be exceptions.

What makes me angry is misogyny, and it is unfortunate that this is alive and well in our supposedly open and free, western society. It is not always recognised or acknowledged, but one only has to look at such examples as the everyday sexism project to understand that woman are not regarded as they should be, that rape culture is prevalent and accepted by many. While this type of behaviour exists, I would argue that feminism continues to be relevant and necessary.

For me personally, feminism is about recognising ability and offering choice based on individual circumstance. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to attend and graduate from university. I studied a subject that interested me (computer science), not one that was typically chosen by women at the time. After a decade of working hard to further my career, unhindered by the fact that I was a woman, I then opted to become a stay at home mother. I do not consider, as some may, that my education and work experience are wasted. I have used all that I have learned in raising my children and conclude that I help and advise them more effectively because of my life experiences.

There are women who are happy to become an attractive accessory for a man. There are women who choose not to marry or have children and who are as capable as any of having a career that society would regard as successful. If these women are able and willing to follow these paths then I would not wish to condemn their choices. Most of us, men and women, will have a variety of aspirations and will have to make compromises along the way as limits are imposed by personal abilities, conflicting desires and individual circumstances. It is only when limitations are put in place due purely to gender that I would see cause for complaint.

Feminism exists because too many cultures have, historically, seen woman as of less value than men. They consider women to be flighty and vain, unreliable and overly emotional; whereas men are considered to be strong and determined, jolly good types to be trusted and relied upon. I suspect that men often choose a man over a woman for a job due to that natural human tendency to go with the known and familiar, to gravitate towards that which we see in ourselves.

All people are individuals and will thrive if they are not forced to conform to rigid, cultural expectations. Abilities exist on a broad spectrum and are fluid; all can learn and adapt as situations change. Problems occur when those in power seek to impose what they see as right for a section of society, when they refuse to accept those who choose a different way.

Societal expectations can be hard to oppose, but this is why feminism still matters. Men can be victims just as much as women with the expectation that they will provide, support and succeed. Feminism should not be seen as putting men down, but as a means to offer wider choice for all.

As we go through life we change. I am not the person I was at twenty or thirty. It would be sad if I was as this would suggest I had learned nothing in the intervening years. There is no ‘one rule fits all’ for men or women, any more than there is just one rule that fits an individual throughout their life.

I guess what I am fighting for is flexibility. Do not expect certain behaviours from me because I am a woman, because I am pale skinned, middle aged, middle class or British. Allow me to be me. I am both ordinary and extraordinary, as are all the people that I know.

We need feminism to stop those in power considering woman as one, homogeneous mass and deciding what is best for them. They do not know what is best for me anymore than I know what is best for you.

 

When others speak my mind

One of the aspects of blog writing that I really enjoy is the exposure it gives me to other blog writers. Sometimes I read a post and feel as satisfied as I do after eating a good meal. To find some vague thoughts that I may have been pondering expressed clearly and succinctly is a delight.

I put together my last series of posts while thinking about Easter; what it meant to me and why. This took me a few days, but didn’t mean that I stopped thinking about other issues. It was good, therefore, to find some of these being discussed by bloggers that I follow. If you think that the topics on this list sound interesting then grab yourself a cup of your favourite beverage and read on.

How to Talk to a Skeptic About Rape Culture | Rant Against the Random

Lexicon entry: animus | Butterfly Mind

Stop Telling Women to Smile | Make Me a Sammich

I am also reproducing here a speech that I reblogged on Tumblr (followthehens) because I think that it speaks for so many who question our attitude to the current education system. However my views on the world may be tarnished by the behaviour of others, while our young people speak with this voice I have hope for the future.

‘(Erica Goldson graduated as valedictorian of Coxsackie-Athens High School. Instead of using her graduation speech to celebrate the triumph of her victory, the school, and the teachers that made it happen, she channeled her inner Ivan Illich and de-constructed the logic of a valedictorian and the whole educational system.)

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, “If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen? The Master thought about this, then replied, “Ten years . .” The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast — How long then?” Replied the Master, “Well, twenty years.” “But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?” asked the student. “Thirty years,” replied the Master. “But, I do not understand,” said the disappointed student. “At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?” Replied the Master, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”

This is the dilemma I’ve faced within the American education system. We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn’t you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test.

School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I’m scared.

John Taylor Gatto, a retired school teacher and activist critical of compulsory schooling, asserts, “We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids into truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then. But we don’t do that.” Between these cinderblock walls, we are all expected to be the same. We are trained to ace every standardized test, and those who deviate and see light through a different lens are worthless to the scheme of public education, and therefore viewed with contempt.

H. L. Mencken wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not “to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. … Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim … is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States.”

To illustrate this idea, doesn’t it perturb you to learn about the idea of “critical thinking.” Is there really such a thing as “uncritically thinking?” To think is to process information in order to form an opinion. But if we are not critical when processing this information, are we really thinking? Or are we mindlessly accepting other opinions as truth?

This was happening to me, and if it wasn’t for the rare occurrence of an avant-garde tenth grade English teacher, Donna Bryan, who allowed me to open my mind and ask questions before accepting textbook doctrine, I would have been doomed. I am now enlightened, but my mind still feels disabled. I must retrain myself and constantly remember how insane this ostensibly sane place really is.

And now here I am in a world guided by fear, a world suppressing the uniqueness that lies inside each of us, a world where we can either acquiesce to the inhuman nonsense of corporatism and materialism or insist on change. We are not enlivened by an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated, for work that need not be done, for enslavement without fervency for meaningful achievement. We have no choices in life when money is our motivational force. Our motivational force ought to be passion, but this is lost from the moment we step into a system that trains us, rather than inspires us.

We are more than robotic bookshelves, conditioned to blurt out facts we were taught in school. We are all very special, every human on this planet is so special, so aren’t we all deserving of something better, of using our minds for innovation, rather than memorization, for creativity, rather than futile activity, for rumination rather than stagnation? We are not here to get a degree, to then get a job, so we can consume industry-approved placation after placation. There is more, and more still.

The saddest part is that the majority of students don’t have the opportunity to reflect as I did. The majority of students are put through the same brainwashing techniques in order to create a complacent labor force working in the interests of large corporations and secretive government, and worst of all, they are completely unaware of it. I will never be able to turn back these 18 years. I can’t run away to another country with an education system meant to enlighten rather than condition. This part of my life is over, and I want to make sure that no other child will have his or her potential suppressed by powers meant to exploit and control. We are human beings. We are thinkers, dreamers, explorers, artists, writers, engineers. We are anything we want to be – but only if we have an educational system that supports us rather than holds us down. A tree can grow, but only if its roots are given a healthy foundation.

For those of you out there that must continue to sit in desks and yield to the authoritarian ideologies of instructors, do not be disheartened. You still have the opportunity to stand up, ask questions, be critical, and create your own perspective. Demand a setting that will provide you with intellectual capabilities that allow you to expand your mind instead of directing it. Demand that you be interested in class. Demand that the excuse, “You have to learn this for the test” is not good enough for you.Education is an excellent tool, if used properly, but focus more on learning rather than getting good grades.

For those of you that work within the system that I am condemning, I do not mean to insult; I intend to motivate. You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system. I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored. You cannot accept the authority of the governing bodies that tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and that you will be punished if you do not comply. Our potential is at stake.

For those of you that are now leaving this establishment, I say, do not forget what went on in these classrooms. Do not abandon those that come after you. We are the new future and we are not going to let tradition stand. We will break down the walls of corruption to let a garden of knowledge grow throughout America. Once educated properly, we will have the power to do anything, and best of all, we will only use that power for good, for we will be cultivated and wise. We will not accept anything at face value. We will ask questions, and we will demand truth.

So, here I stand. I am not standing here as valedictorian by myself. I was molded by my environment, by all of my peers who are sitting here watching me. I couldn’t have accomplished this without all of you. It was all of you who truly made me the person I am today. It was all of you who were my competition, yet my backbone. In that way, we are all valedictorians.

I am now supposed to say farewell to this institution, those who maintain it, and those who stand with me and behind me, but I hope this farewell is more of a “see you later” when we are all working together to rear a pedagogic movement. But first, let’s go get those pieces of paper that tell us that we’re smart enough to do so!’

For those who are interested, this post also gives food for thought: School shouldn’t be about equality | The Grumpy Giraffe.

Enjoy the rest of your holiday weekend. xx

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