I started Women & Power: A Manifesto from Mary Beard at breakfast. By dinner, I had finished this short and insightful read. Beard is a classics professor at University of Cambridge. She has a uniquely English perspective, but uses examples from throughout the world. The book is a combination of two speeches Beard gave about this topic. It’s a very readable combination of scholarly information with an approachable tone.
Beard starts off strong with her main premise “When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.” And from there, she proves her thesis handily using examples from classical literature and connecting them to present and recent past events.
Okay, so now you’re wondering if it’s boring. Am I right? Well, there were a few sentences I had a read an extra time or two. But only because I think Beard is pretty brilliant.
Beard writes eloquently about how women have been silenced practically forever, and how this affects us today. She points to the women of Greek mythology, as well as the culture of the time. And says, “These attitudes, assumptions and prejudices are hard-wired into us: not into our brains (there’s is no neurological reason for us to hear low-pitched voices as more authoritative than high-pitched ones), but into our culture, our language and millennia of our history.”
By making the case for such long-standing prejudice, Beard jumps past what we consider to be “simple” misogyny and gives incredible depth of context. She discusses the relevance of Athena, the Amazons (see photo), Medusa, and many more classical female figures to this discussion. And then she debunks the perception that they were meant to be female-forward examples. I grew up (maybe you did too) believing they were written to be strong. Beard shows how they were still examples of men silencing and disregarding their strengths. This was definitely a sad revelation for me.
Using examples from history and ancient literature, Beard connects us to the politicians of today, like Hillary Clinton, Theresa May, Angela Merkel, and Elizabeth Warren. But she also says we need to rethink how we view power. “We have to be more reflective about what power is, what it is for, and how it is measured. To put it another way, if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women.”
Beard speaks of “decoupling power from public prestige.” She talks about the power of followers rather than leading. Her present-day example for this is the Black Lives Matter movement, which was begun by three women. For more on the genesis of this follower-focused organization, please read Patrice Khan-Cullours’ recent book, When They Call You a Terrorist.
Further, Beard reminds us that power is also a verb (to power) rather than a simply noun or possession one gains with time and effort. To me that’s a unique and new way to view the frustrating, male-centric world of personal and institutional power. Hurrah Mary Beard!
Mary Beard makes the scholarly accessible. She analyzes power through the ages, and succinctly synthesizes her perspectives into a clear argument for women’s place in a new, stronger power structure. I read this as a library book, but I’ll be buying my own copy. Chances are I’ll gift a copy to a few friends as well.
As a Litsy friend mentioned, I’d pair it with Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chiminanda Ngozi Adichie.
I can’t recommend this book enough!
(As an aside, this book helps me understand why my recent read, The Power, frustrated me. I wanted it to redefine what power actually is, rather than just make women act like men do when they’re in power. But now I also see that asking an author to do such a thing is actually quite momentous.)