Feminist Book Fortnight was just the kick up the ass I needed to finally pull Mary Beard’s Women & Power off my bookshelf. I bought it as a post-Christmas treat to myself and it has just sat there and looked pretty ever since. I mean, seriously, look at this book jacket!
Based on two of Beard’s recent lectures in her role as Professor of Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, the book looks at The Public Voice of Women (2014) and Women in Power (2017). And it’s a genuinely fascinating read.
Beard set out to explain “just how deeply embedded in Western culture are the mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously, and that sever them… from the centres of power… When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.”
From Homer’s Odyssey, nearly 3,00 years ago, to the most recent Presidential Election, there is copious evidence of women being silenced by men, both in literary fiction and real life. Beard uses copies of ancient artwork and quotes from classical literature, alongside recent political reports and cartoons, to show how far we actually haven’t come in terms of treatment of women, particularly when it comes to power struggles. I’m sure we can all think of an example where we have been in an important meeting and a woman has been spoken over, had her contributions ignored or even credited by a man.
Through reading this book I learned about Margaret Thatcher’s speech lessons to lower the tone of her voice so that she would be more respected, and considered the effect of the typical power suit of female politicians. Why should women feel they have to be seen as more male to be taken seriously? And why are women more likely to be trolled online by men? Why does a strong or controversial statement regarding gender values or feminism suddenly incite threats of rape and murder? How can we expect change when this attitude has been commonplace for millennia? Says Beard, “These attitudes, assumptions and prejudices are hard-wired into us: not into our brains… but into our culture, our language and millennia of our history”.
Women & Power is short enough that you can read it in a day and quickly pass it on to someone else – and pass it on you must, as this is knowledge which deserves, no, needs, to be shared.
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