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.