Women and Power by Mary Beard

Those of you who happen to follow me on Twitter might have noticed my recent excitement at stumbling over a bit of a bargain in a charity shop; namely a lovely pristine copy of Mary Beard’s “Women and Power” for 50p… As I commented at the time, truly some charity shop staff don’t quite know what they’re doing! However, I was happy with my bargain as I’ve been keen to read this since gifting Middle Child a copy at Christmas time, and as I wasn’t feeling like launching into one of the big fat fiction books I’m facing right now, it was the right book at the right time.

Beard is a well-known academic who makes regular appearances on TV as well as holding down an impressive teaching commitment; she’s also attracted a disproportionate amount of negative online comment, which serves to highlight just how far we still have to come with regards to gender stereotypes and expectations, and also how unpleasant certain online areas can be. Nevertheless, she continues to be erudite, outspoken and inspirational, and this book reflects both strands of her experience.

The book has its genesis in two lectures she gave, one in 2014 and one in 2017, for the London Review of Books, and it’s a powerful polemical read which draws not only on Beard’s knowledge of classical antiquity but also her personal experiences of making her way as an educated, intelligent woman in a man’s world. In simple terms, Beard is looking at the struggles women have in taking positions of power, how ingrained the attitudes of men are towards this, and how it is pretty much impossible with the current set-up to attain any kind of equality. The traditional power systems of the modern world are a male construct and Beard’s basic point is that the only way a women can get ahead in the power structure of our world (and indeed in the worlds of the past) is by aping a man; that’s what the system demands and that’s the only kind of behaviour the men in power recognise. So to change the balance, and in fact change the world, we completely need to remake it.

You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.

In presenting her arguments, Beard quotes some mind-numbingly awful behaviour from the classics (who knew Homer featured such hideously mysogynistic stories???) and then brings the representations of behaviour towards independent women starkly up to date with examples of how the imagery used has been hijacked by modern politicians – the image of Trump as Perseus and Clinton as Medusa is one I hadn’t seen and it’s truly shocking. Beard also takes a look at Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Herland”, which despite its pioneering viewpoint has drawbacks in taking on the traditional male power structure. Here, even a successful female utopia has to be made in isolation; its creators regard themselves as failures and once contact is made with the (male) outside world, it isn’t long before this oasis of female good sense unravels.

Interestingly, reading this book straight after the Priestley essays brought me back to consideration of Eros and Logos, the feminine and masculine principles (although in our gender fluid modern world, that’s perhaps a simplistic and naive viewpoint). Just as JBP seemed to be advocating a world with more focus on the feminine way of thinking, Beard seems to be suggesting a complete dismantling of the current system and a recoding of what we expect our power structure to be. There’s a disjuncture between the lip service we pay to equality in our modern world, and the reality of what women still experience. Coincidentally, as I was reading this book, Beard was featuring in the fascinating BBC2 documentary series “Civilisations” (yes, I’m risking dropping into a documentary rabbit hole again…), and was once again being met with ridiculously sexist commentary, in many cases from other women. Have we not yet moved on, people, past the point where we have to have such a rude and judgemental attitude to women that would never be meted out to men?? Plus Ça Change…. 😦

Beard’s argument is a persuasive one, and despite semi-humorous (but very irritating) assertions from members of my family that if the development of the world had been left to women we wouldn’t have any progress (Ada Lovelace, anyone???), I do find myself wondering what it would take to make a radical change in our society so that women can be accepted in positions of power, high up in the working world and generally everywhere they want to go – certainly the dismantling of the political Old Boy Network would need to happen. I should say here that I work in a pretty much all female environment, with intelligent, strong women in charge and it’s actually a wonderful place to be. And it’s interesting to watch the varying reactions of the men who come into that environment which range from admiration, curiosity and recognition to condescension, hostility and outright dismissal. Until we’re all on the same side things will not change.

So I ended this fascinating little book with a lot of questions buzzing around in my head, and also a new way of looking at the world. Unless we dismantle the patriarchy and build something new, will be ever change things for the better? And how will we do that and what will the new structure be? And in this unstable world of conflict how will it be possible to take on a way of thinking that’s ingrained and has been for centuries? All of this is a big ask – but if we want a fairer, better, more peaceful and equal world it seems to be the only way to go. Frankly, though, I just don’t know where we start. 😦

Anyway – that was the most stimulating and thought-provoking 50p I’ve spent in a long time…