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.

Advertisements

Book Review: All Grown Up

“They tell you that you grow up, you get a job, you fall in love, you get married, you buy a home, you have children, you do all that, you get to be an adult. […] But you can’t be something you’re not. You can’t.”

All Grown Up, by Jami Attenberg, introduces the reader to Andrea Bern, an intelligent and independent woman on the cusp of forty, living alone in New York City. Andrea is single and child free by choice. She has a decent job, even if it isn’t the one she once dreamed of, and lives in an acceptable apartment. She carries emotional baggage but isn’t convinced therapy will help. She drinks, enjoys sex, and ponders the direction her life is taking, if this is what it is to be.

Told in a series of vignettes, the book explores Andrea’s relationships with family and friends as she watches many of them settle into the lives society expects – marriage, babies, discontent. There is much humour in the telling but what stands out is the raw honesty.

People come and go from Andrea’s life. Their experiences affect them and all they interact with as needs and desires progress. Individual choices don’t always segue with those made by loved ones. Is it possible to ever truly know someone when time only moves forward and disparate actions, especially within one’s varied relationships, auger personal development?

Andrea has no interest in children. She distances herself from those whose lives now revolve around their offspring. She observes how others regard her, some chafing against how she behaves. Whilst she recognises that her life is not ideal – she feels lonely sometimes, frustrated by her job – those who have chosen to follow society’s conventions have issues to deal with too. Many struggle to accept her right to autonomy if she is not providing them with what they crave.

“no matter how much you own yourself and your body and your mind, there are men who will always try to seek power over your body, even if it is just with their eyes”

In poignant, fierce, uncompromising  prose the reader is offered insights into personal thoughts and feelings often shrouded from public consideration. Whatever one’s relationship status or occupation, life is experienced as an individual. This story portrays what it is to be a woman, sentient and alive.

Although unsparing in its observations this is an affirming read. It is powerful, perceptive and recommended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.

This post is a stop on the All Grown Up Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Book Review: Nasty Women

nastywomen

“Take a moment and ask yourself who are the real Nasty Women? Those of us who struggle to empower all women or those of us who empower men that ensure we remain second class citizens?”

Nasty Women is a collection of essays written by contemporary women about their everyday experiences of living in the twenty-first century western world. The contributors come from a variety of cultures, their points of view percipient in reflecting the particular challenges they have encountered due to their: gender, appearance, physical ability, creed.

Each account details the daily aggressions the authors have faced from family, friends and strangers. These are both verbal and physical, sometimes well intentioned but always damaging. Women of colour have their hair touched as though an animal in a petting zoo. Curvy women have their bottoms pinched, their waists grasped. Fat women are berated for eating, advised of a new diet plan, told how good they looked that time they lost some weight. Muslim women are required to defend themselves by those whose perceptions of their beliefs are certain yet skewed.

Many of the authors ponder the cost to their mental well-being of the expectations in which they were raised. Women are required to be good and this equates to being considered attractive, compliant and subservient, especially by men. White male privilege and those who uphold it, fearful perhaps at a perceived threat to the benefits they take as their due, requires that women abide by their definition of the ‘natural order’. Arguments for change are granted validity only if men suffer too.

Much of the harassment detailed is blamed on the survivor for the way they act or look. They are told that if they would only be good then they would be safe, with little thought by the advisers and accusers as to what they would be safe from. Why it is considered acceptable that women are required to live their lives under constant threat of attack?

The accounts by women who suffer different experiences to mine were enlightening. By listening and responding appropriately to such first hand experiences, conduct may be adjusted. Those that gave voice to ordeals I have suffered offered comfort. So ingrained is the demand that women cope and remain silent, it is rare to find discussion let alone acknowledgement of how widespread and damaging these accepted behaviours are.

It is not just men who perpetuate the patriarchy and silence dissent. In her essay, Choices, Rowan C. Clarke relates how her mother instilled in her the belief that she was abnormal because she did not appear concerned enough about losing weight, being pretty and desirable to boys.

“I hated myself. My mother has always been very opinionated and everybody’s actions were judged through her particular morality lens. It was hard work to please my mother. She would get so enraged when I didn’t act the way she wanted me to. […] Why couldn’t I just be normal and make her proud?”

In the age of Trump and his ilk it seems more important than ever to recognise and share experiences and to call out the damage that attempting to silence women will cause. If speaking out for tolerance and equality makes me nasty, then I wear that badge with pride.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, 404 Ink.

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.

Book Review: The Arrival of Missives

arrivalofmissives

The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley, is set in a small West of England village in the aftermath of the Great War. The families of the village have lived here for generations, each taking an interest in their neighbours’ lives and playing the role expected of them in occupation and village life.

The protagoinist, Shirley Fearn, is the only child of an increasingly successful, landowning farmer. She has been raised to be of interest to someone who would be willing and able to take over the family farm. Shirley has other ideas. She believes herself in love with the village schoolteacher, Mr Tiller, a badly injured veteran of the war. Her ambition is to gain her own teacher’s certificate from the nearby training college in Taunton, to marry Mr Tiller and then teach by his side.

When Mr Tiller learns of her plans he shares a secret that she must never divulge. He believes that Shirley can avert a catastrophe, but to do so she must trust him and do exactly as he asks. Shirley finds herself caught up in a personal conflict between helping her idol and following her own desires.

All her life Shirley has been expected to comply with the wishes of others. Her parents will contemplate no other future for her than that of the wife of a farmer on the family land. Shirley is headstrong and articulate, yet finds her voice ignored as the men of the village make decisions regarding her future. She receives little support from her mother who has learned to cope by hiding how she feels and pandering to her husband:

“He is an enormous tyrant baby to whom she will be forever bound.”

Shirley is a fascinating character, a young woman with opinions and desires who wishes to wrest control of her life from those who are convinced they know best. She observes that men’s plans rarely consider women, yet all men are born of a woman and therefore their participation over time is required.

The village May Day celebrations bring matters to a head as Shirley exercises the small power she has been granted. In the aftermath she comes to realise that her destiny is still being controlled. She acts to thwart the plans of the men intent on dictating the course of her life. She is unwilling to submit to village expectations, to comply with their skewed demands.

I enjoyed unpicking the surreal aspects of the story which came clear by the end. The denouement is intensely satisfying.

This is just the sort of book that I enjoy reading with its complex, recognisable characters whose well intentioned prejudices still resonate. I am grateful that, through the ages, there have been women like Shirley willing to step out of line.

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

Book Review: Girls Will Be Girls

girlswillbegirls

Girls Will Be Girls, by Emer O’Toole, is an exploration of identity, gender and social conditioning. It starts with the premise that “all the world is a stage” and that “gender is an act which has been rehearsed”. The reasoning behind these assertions are well articulated in the opening chapters making this a thought provoking, challenging but never difficult read.

By drawing from her own life experiences, and sharing many amusing if sometimes poignant anecdotes along the way, the author looks at how people are conditioned to act out the part prescribed for their gender from birth. This is more than just dressing girls in pink and boys in blue. It looks at the way adults treat little girls (isn’t she pretty?) and how women are admired for attaining an acceptable aesthetic (thin, tanned, long hair on head, no hair on body).

The author talks of how she would feel social love and acceptance when she conformed, and how difficult it was to be seen in public with a more natural look.

“Why does so much embarrassment and shame surround women’s bodies?”

“it made me see how deeply engrained body policing really is”

I remembered the furor in the media when Emer appeared on breakfast television with visible underarm hair. Women grow hair on their bodies at around the same stage in their development that they grow breasts. How differently these natural protuberances are treated. Visible body hair, other than on the head, is viewed with disgust. Female breasts are so desirable that they must be covered, particularly in a professional setting, for fear that men will lose control, poor dears.

“The taboo on breasts successfully convinces us that women’s breasts are provocative, that men cannot possibly come into visual contact with them without losing all reason to a degree that we actually blame women who are attacked for failing to sufficiently hide their bodies.”

The chapters on sexuality were explicit but written to inform rather than titillate, a refreshing change. Women perform their socially influenced, learned behaviours in public and in the home, but even more so it would seem in bed. And that is what is expected, especially by men. The influence of porn is discussed, as is the lack of knowledge of the functions of the female anatomy. This is not an anti male text in any sense but rather an eye opening account of the roles society expects the genders to play, roles which are often painful as well as degrading for women.

The author writes of experiments she has carried out with her looks and how these have been received. She has shaved her head, grown her body hair, dressed as a boy and a girly girl. She reports on how each of these incarnations have been treated by friends and strangers, of the confusion and anger that can be induced when a women strays from what is considered the norm.

“My experiment […] was a visceral reminder of just how socially unacceptable the unmodified female body has become”

“we regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right”

The sociology and psychology are fascinating. I would love to put this book into the hands of so many people, yet I suspect that those who could learn most from it would dismiss the reasoning as feminist ranting, political correctness gone mad. Why should the beneficiaries of a system try to change it?

Personally I did not need to be convinced. As an over 50, overweight woman who eschews make up I am often reluctant to leave the house knowing how I will be viewed by society. I currently sport body hair because of comments regarding my size that have been made when I have gone to be waxed. I have suffered my share of sexual harassment in the workplace and socially.

In one chapter the author talks of how expectations change over time, and where this might lead. She ponders if the next generation will consider surgical changes a necessary element of their beauty regime, a real possibility given the direction in which our culture is moving and one which, as the mother of a daughter, terrifies me.

And this is why books such as these matter and must be put into the hands of young adults. If the patriarchy see no reason to change then the catalyst must come from elsewhere. Society is not just made up of boys and girls but also of those whose gender cannot be so neatly defined. Difference is natural and normal. Accepting this will require a radical shift in learned behaviour.

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

 

Book Review: The Awakening

10603362_4644871855854_7763798898263257376_n

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, is a powerful work of literary fiction that was condemned in its time for suggesting that a women may want more from her life than a husband, children and a comfortable home. Published in the USA in 1899 it tells the tale of Edna, a wife and mother who awakens to desires that polite society refused to acknowledge in its female members. From a life spent acquiescing to the wishes and expectations of family and acquaintances, Edna starts to consider her own thoughts and feelings and, most shockingly, to act in a manner of her choosing.

There is so much in this book that reads as depressingly timeless. Her husband is materially kind and generous to his family, but cannot comprehend how this may not be enough for his wife. The men they mix with talk incessantly of themselves with little regard for the women so long as they are supportive and act as required and expected. The women gossip and flirt but rarely converse, even amongst themselves, with candour.

Upon observing with some chagrin the changes in his wife, Edna’s husband’s first reaction is to ponder her state of mind:

‘It sometimes entered Mr Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally.’

Concerned by the unexpected instability in his comfortable and ordered life, he consults with a doctor who asks:

‘has she been associating of late with a circle of pseudo-intellectual women?’

The insertion of pseudo rang so familiar. Over one hundred years later, too many men still struggle to regard women as mentally and intellectually their equals.

Despite the risks of association, Edna entertains men to satisfy her desires, a shocking idea at the time and one which led to her book being condemned as ‘immoral’.

‘[He] meant absolutely nothing to her. Yet his presence, his manners, the warmth of his glances, and above all the touch of his lips upon her hand had acted like a narcotic upon her.’

Edna did little to hide from others the change she was undergoing. A friend cautioned her:

‘The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.’

In the end though, the object of her imaginings turned out to be not so different to the other men, only able to regard her as a woman and not as an intelligent being.

‘He looked at Edna’s book, which he had read; and he told her the end, to save her the trouble of wading through it, he said.’

The Awakening is beautifully written, telling an insightful story that provides a social commentary which could almost be contemporary. Having said that though, I was disappointed with the denouement. I regretted that this woman, who had shown so much strength and insight, could not avoid the trappings of expectation, of a wish to be with a man.

As an early feminist work it is well worth reading, not least to consider the furore its publication caused. It has interesting characters, a compelling plot and is a true page turner. Such a shame that its protagonist could not, after all, find contentment living with herself; that she felt the need for the presence of another to make her life feel complete.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by Lizzie from These Little Words.