Tag Archives: Mary Beard

Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes

There is a trend for retelling the ancient stories. Last year in our book group we read Mythos by Stephen Fry. He is a spirited re-teller of those ancient stories. I enjoyed The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker which I reviewed on this blog. It is an account of the final days of the Trojan wars told by Briseis, a young Trojan woman whose city is sacked, and who is Achilles’s prize in battle.

I was interested enough to attend a discussion (on-line) called Myth and Fiction at the British Museum, between Mary Beard and Charlotte Higgins. They discussed retelling myths in modern novels, including from the women’s point of view. The subject of this post is one of the books they mentioned, Stone Blind the retelling of Medusa’s story. I thought I would give it a try – after all, what did I know about Medusa except that she had snakes instead of hair and could turn people to stone by looking at them. 

Stone Blind

Medusa is a Gorgon, who is looked after by her two sisters in a cave on the coast. One day she decides to explore beyond the small area she calls home and she finds a temple dedicated to the goddess Athene. The god of the sea, Poseidon, finds her there and rapes her in the temple. Athene, who is a daughter of Zeus and a warrior goddess, is much offended by the defilement of her temple and decides to get revenge.

She cannot revenge herself on Poseidon, he too is a god. So she tracks down Medusa and rips off her scalp and damages her eyes. After this attack Medusa is in great pain, but as she recovers, she tries to use her eyes again, untying the bandages, gradually realising a terrible truth.

She heard her name being called by Sthenno [her sister]. She opened her mouth to reply. But then, with no warning, the snakes became a hissing writhing mass of fear and anger. She had no idea what frightened them and they gave her no chance to find out. They pulsed around her skull, frantic and desperate. What? she asked them. What do you want? What can I do? The snakes continued their seething fury. Medusa was not afraid of them, and at the same time she knew she must do what they urged. But what was it? She could not understand. She raised her hands to her temples and felt a sudden surge of energy. Yes, that is it, yes.
She still held the bindings in her hands. And just as she knew that the snakes wanted to lie on the sand, she knew this. They wanted her to cover her eyes again. She did not attempt to reason with them. She didn’t try to understand why they wanted her eyes to be closed, or how they were telling her that she must cover them up. (196-7)

The snakes help Medusa to avoid turning her sisters to stone, but a passing scorpion is less fortunate.

Medusa: Detail of the Fountain of Apollo in Madrid, photo by Luis Garcia August 2007 via WikiCommons

But things get worse for Medusa. Perseus is one of Zeus’s many sons. He lives with his mother, whom he adores. But one day a narcissistic mortal, king of Seriphos, Polydectes decides to marry his mother. To prevent this Perseus is given the task – to bring the head of a Gorgon to Polydectes within two months. Perseus is not up to the job.

Poor little Perseus, the reluctant hero. Defender of his mother’s honour. Boastful little fool. If he had simply kept his mouth shut while Polydectes was swaggering around trying to intimidate him. All he had to do was behave like any other of the king’s subjects. Say yes sire, no sire, whenever he was spoken to, and the whole thing would have been over by now …
The idea that Perseus is a hero is one I have taken exception to since – I can’t even tell you how long it is. As long as I have known his name. He’s arrogant, and he’s spoiled. (112-3)

Since he is Zeus’s son the king of the gods sends some lesser gods to help him with his task. He is assisted by Athene and Hermes, but he is still pretty useless. As he approaches the Gorgon’s cave he has to be guided through innumerable adventures and puzzles by his two mentors. The two stories of Medusa and of Perseus finally come together, along with some of the other stories of the gods and of the kings and queens of the ancient Greek islands. There is a monster from the sea, a tsunami, people gathered to celebrate a wedding are turned to stone, and other terrible things happen.

So why retell this story? Does it make more sense to modern readers than the older versions, or is the modern idiom more appealing to current readers? The story was told in many, many short sections, through the eyes of several different characters, and follows many gods and mortals as they effect Medusa’s story. 

I put the book down thinking that the male gods, especially Poseidon, and many of the male mortals come across as believing themselves to be entitled, taking offence far too easily, becoming vengeful out of all proportion and are hardly role models to look up to. The same can be said of the selfishness of many of the female goddesses and the women. They are vain, and vengeful too.

It is a story in which a goddess blames a mortal for the offence against her by a god. Don’t blame the men. The blaming of women, even by women, for the sins of men is as old as the Greek myths.

Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes, published in 2022 by Picador. 371pp

Related post

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (Bookword May 2019)


Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Utopias are irresistible. This feminist utopia has much to recommend it, at least as a book. The supreme function of fiction is to offer a different way of seeing the world. Charlotte Perkins Gilman gives her readers a world without men in her utopia, called Herland.

In Women & PowerMary Beard explores the historic silencing of women and the current constructions of power that exclude women. That book reminded me about Herland. I decided to treat myself to a reread.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It is the early twentieth century and young men are proving themselves through exploration in Africa, Antarctica and up the Amazon. Three young men, in search of adventure, are determined to find the fabled land rumoured to be peopled by women only. They approach with many assumptions in place. They assume they will be welcomed, that there are men managing things, and if not seen the men must be pulling the strings from some glorious hiding place.

Terry is a rich, virile and confident young man, not used to being denied by anyone, above all women. He expects to conquer the women. Jeff is a southerner, and his respect and reverence for women makes understanding Herland easier for him than for his macho companion. But his worship is of weak and feeble women, and the inhabitants of Herland are not that. They are assertive, powerful and in no need of protection. Van, the narrator, likes to take a scientific approach to the world, more questioning, less prone to assumptions. Even he is amazed by what they find in that hidden land.

The young men are certain that the place will provide them with opportunities for conquest and power.

“They would fight amongst themselves,” Terry insisted. “Women always do. We mustn’t look to find any sort of order and organization.”

“You’re dead wrong,” Jeff told him. “It will be like a nunnery under an abbess – a peaceful, harmonious sisterhood.”

I snorted derision at this idea.

“Nuns, indeed! Your peaceful sisterhoods were all celibate, Jeff, and under vows of obedience. These are just women, and mothers, and where there’s motherhood you don’t find sisterhood – not much.”

“No, sir – they’ll scrap,” agreed Terry. “Also we mustn’t look for invention and progress, it’ll be awfully primitive.” (7)

On encountering some women, they discover that their accustomed ways of approaching women do not result in the outcomes they expect. And when they become more aggressive many women arrive and subdue and detain them. They attempt one escape but after a while cooperate to learn about Herland.

Reflecting on their early days in Herland the visitors find that they were surprised that many of the inhabitants were older women and that these older women took charge of them.

In our discussion and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women, whatever else they might be, would be young. Most men do think that way, I fancy.

“Woman” in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow, into private ownership mostly, or out of it altogether. But these good ladies were very much on the stage, and yet any one of them might have been a grandmother. (17)

Some of the pleasure of the novel is in anticipating the ways in which the men’s preconceptions will be challenged as they gradually learn about how the women organise their society. In comparing the strange country with their own the three men find that they want to hide much about their homeland: poverty, disease, inequality, war and so forth.

They are eventually expelled, or leave or remain in the paradise. Terry believes in the superiority of men and that the relationships between men and women as he has experienced them are the natural order of things. It is his behaviour, his sexual violence, which leads to his expulsion. Jeff finds happiness in Herland and Van returns with Terry.

Is Herland a paradise?

Charlotte Perkins Gilman constructed a land based on assumptions that challenged those common in early twentieth century America. Its principles were rational, and the women worked together for the benefit of all. Their sexless motherhood was seen as almost sacred by them, and the outcomes of their cooperation included equality, generosity, shared knowledge, wealth and good feeling. Without men the women had rejected competition and values based on strength, acquisition and exclusivity.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was reacting to a society that she found deeply repugnant in its treatment of women. She wrote her short story The Yellow Wallpaper in 1892. In it she describes how a woman is treated (medically, psychologically) in order to bring her to the proper attitudes of a wife. It was based on her own experience of marriage.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman in c 1900

And she is no less a product of her time. In particular, this imagined female-dominated society is governed by rational thinking. And we know, we cannot escape the knowledge that humans, male and female, do not always act rationally.

The chapters in which the men discover the ways in which women organise various aspects of their community, become a little tedious. The expectation by the reader that the narrative will reveal the amusing shortcomings of the men’s attitudes cannot be sustained as they and the reader become more familiar with Herland.

Herald is a mischievous and lively exposition of women’s capabilities, and reminds us of how the men of Charlotte Gilman Perkin’s time viewed women and of how little has changed since then.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first serialised in 1909 and published as a book in 1979. I read the Dover Thrift Edition. 124pp

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

Women and Power: a manifesto by Mary Beard

I love the way that Mary Beard refuses to keep quiet, as people try to silence her through twitter trolling and snidey comments about her television appearances. But Mary Beard keeps on writing her best-selling history books. She continues to be a respected academic at Cambridge University. And she has not compromised on her appearance, refusing to colour her hair and to alter how she wears it. And now she steps into the feminist ring too with Women and Power: a manifesto.

The attacks on her are misogynistic. They are attempts to silence a woman. To deny her knowledge, intellectual capacity and expertise and to hide her from those who would celebrate her perceived transgressions.

Last Christmas I gave away several copies of Women and Power. I hoped to receive a copy in turn, but it was not to be. So I have only just acquired and read this short book.

Actually that’s not quite true. As a subscriber to the London Review of Books I read the first essay when it appeared in 2014. The second is still buried in my tbr pile of LRBs.

The Public Voice of Women

The first section is based on a 2014 lecture for London Review of Books. It explores the very deep roots of the record of men silencing women: The Public Voice of Women. She is a classical scholar so she begins with The Odyssey and the moment when Telemachus tells Penelope to shut up and go back to her quarters. She notes that it is a mark of his arrival at manhood. But it is also one of the first pieces of written evidence that show women denied the right to speak in public spaces.

She points out that some things have changed but that today when women are allowed to speak it is often on so-called women’s issues, such as childcare, or women’s reproductive rights or health. She argues that we need to explore how we speak in public, why, on what subjects and whose voice fits. And challenge this where necessary.

Women in Power

The second lecture is called Women in Power (2017). In this Mary Beard considers how frequently women have been denied power, or they are punished for trying to acquire it, and concludes that a more radical approach is required. Tinkering and gradual progress are unlikely to change the structures that exclude women. We need to change the structure. Power needs to be redefined, shared, not seen as a thing but as ‘an attribute or even a verb’.

She questions the idea of power and leadership as elite, coupled with public prestige and individual charisma. This idea is reinforced by the notion of power as a possession. And in all cultures power is associated with men.

On those terms, women as a gender – and not as some individuals – are by definition excluded from it [power]. You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male. You have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession. (86-87)

She makes pertinent references to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (serialised 1909–1916, first published in book form in 1979). In the country of Herland there are no men and power and leadership are exercised differently. The men who stumble upon this hidden civilization cannot believe that there are not men leaders hidden away somewhere. Time to reread this novel I think.

My experience

I once held a position of potential power. I was a secondary headteacher in inner London from the late 1980s. It was a time of immense change in education and schools, and I was horrified to come up against the misogynist behaviour of some teachers. I tried to lead by collaboration, but time and again there was confrontation and challenge. And when I went on to work on the new qualification for headteachers and at the University in School Improvement, I came up against traditional models of leadership (male) as the answer to school problems (think super-heads, think leadership college). It is hard to battle against strongly entrenched cultural ideas about power and leadership.

So I like the idea of trying to find new ways of sharing power in all spheres and challenging some very old structures and practices. It starts with being heard and moves on to structural change.

Women and Power: a manifesto by Mary Beard, published in 2017 by Profile Books. 116pp

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.


Filed under Books, Essays, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

I did love reading My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem. This book was chosen for January by my local book group. I don’t always welcome memoir, but the case was made for it and I began reading it as soon as it arrived. I found myself enjoying it way more than I had expected. Let me count the reasons after a brief introduction to the book.

Introduction to the book

Gloria Steinem is perhaps best known for co-founding the influential American feminist magazine Ms. in 1971.

I realized as a journalist that there really was nothing for women to read that was controlled by women, and this caused me along with a number of other women to start Ms. magazine. [from 2011 Documentary – Gloria: In her Own Words]

Spring 1972

My Life on the Road reveals that the magazine was only one part of a much broader pattern of activities addressing equality issues, especially in relation to women. She describes her career in these terms.

At first I was a journalist telling stories, then a sometime worker in political campaigns and movements, and most consistently an itinerant feminist organizer. (xxiii)

Can you imagine telling the careers officer, ‘I plan to be an itinerant feminist organizer’? If I had had such an idea in my head in the early 70s my career would have been very different.

The itinerant part turns out to have been extremely important, for travelling allowed Gloria Steinem to have hope encouraged by all the people she has met. Travel brings hope by passing on stories; being on the road forces you to live in the present; it provides alternative ways of looking at human activity. So I honour her efforts and her latest book by passing on something of my enthusiastic responses to her book.

  1. Her father’s story

Leo Steinem, her father, led an itinerant life, and was a big man in many ways. Gloria Steinem describes him as an unusual, restless man, open to change and differences. Many fathers pass on their political attitudes to their offspring, whereas Leo Steinem’s big-hearted generosity can be seen in his daughter’s story, the value of travel. A life on the road was his legacy.

  1. Nostalgia

Nowadays we refer to the Second Wave of feminism, but living through that exciting time of growing awareness in the late 60s and early 70s felt like a tsunami. Reading once more about this period of my past I felt something similar to when I read Harriet Harman’s recent autobiography. It was an exciting time to be alive and to take part in the struggles, some of which stretched across the Atlantic. Consciousness raising, cooperative and direct action, building the sisterhood, these were the lessons we learned. Some of us were propelled into the abortion debates. Later we battled against the placing of cruise missiles on Greenham Common, or supported the fight for fair wages with the Dagenham women and so on. Gloria Steinem tells of parallel struggles in the US.

Raissa Page, Greenham Common 1983

  1. Some specific women she met

I found myself wishing I had met so many of the women she describes. Many were activists who have been compelled to take action by local issues, standing up against inequality in their neighbourhood. There was Wilma Mankiller of the Cherokee Nation. And Hillary Clinton, in whose race for the Democratic nomination she worked and then helped unify when she lost to Barack Obama. Robin Morgan, another writer, and many, many more. How lucky to have met all those wonderful women and worked alongside them.

  1. The significance of listening

Women have expressed dismay at inequality over the years. What Gloria Steinem identified and reported in the book is the importance of listening to these experiences. On the individual level that was why consciousness -raising groups were so important: they gave women both a forum to speak and a forum to be heard. We are learning more and more about how women are silenced (I refer you to Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain things to Me and Mary Beard’s Women and Power.).

In My Life on the Road Gloria Steinem describes how listening was the basis of her learning. It was the basis of cooperative, democratic actions. She did not bring answers, but modelled listening and finding local answers.

  1. Feminism is everything

By writing feminism is everything, I do not mean that it is the most important thing, I mean it connects every aspect of human life: the personal, the political, the physical, the relational, the economic, and so on. Gloria Steinem demonstrates a set of values that are not bounded by feminism, rather link her responses to inequality based on gender, to inequalities based on race, or class or undemocratic actions.

  1. Gloria Steinem

We must honour our heroes, and Gloria Steinem is undoubtedly one of mine.

Gloria Steinem 2012

  1. The struggle goes on

There is still a long way to go, and it is likely to take many more waves. The book was published in 2015, that is before some of the most depressing undemocratic developments of the last 18 months. But in addition to the election of a misogynist US President, and a referendum which will cause especial difficulties for women, who always bear the worst of the burden of social problems, we are today in a time of fighting back.

Steady progress has been made in respect of LGBT+ rights and expectations. Victims of male violence, and especially of male sexual violence are speaking out and naming men as never before, and being applauded for it. I write as Hollywood honours the #MeToo campaign at the Golden Globe awards and it becomes possible to think that a step has been taken that cannot be untrodden.

And there are the role models and actions that brave women are taking. I especially honour the example of Senator Elizabeth Warren, from whose actions the hashtag #shepersisted was coined. Remember how the majority leader tried to silence her when she read Martin Luther King’s widow’s letter to oppose Session’s nomination for the role of Attorney General? Sessions had used his position against black voter registration. Senator McConnell made the famous/infamous statement:

She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

I like persisters. I think Gloria Steinem is a persister too.

Ms. Magazine 2007 – 35th anniversary issue

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem, published by One World in 2015. 312pp

Additional picture credits:

Ms. early and anniversary issues from WikiCommons Liberty Media for Women.

Author Photo via WikiCommons. Jewish Women’s Archive by Joan Roth, March 2012.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.


Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

Women and Fiction

Dispirited? Moi? Well yes, a little. It seems that women’s works will always, always be neglected in favour of men’s. Despite excellent fiction written by women, despite the situation being exposed again and again and despite our best efforts. I am dispirited.

In the lists

200 Middlemarch coverTake the Telegraph’s list of 100 novels everyone should read, for example. Good start – first on the list is Middlemarch by George Eliot. There are, count them, another 18 novels written by women in the list. There is, of course, Charlotte and Emily Bronte. Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and on through Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Shelley to Harper Lee. I wouldn’t actually disagree with any of the 100 novels, they should all be read. And more too. People should read. But 19% is not a good representation of women’s writing in a list with that title.

Bit of a girly cover?

Bit of a girly cover?

Same again in the list of 100 best novels written in English from Robert McCrum, published in the Guardian in August 2015. 22% books were by women. Emma by Jane Austen was #7 on the list and the first by a woman. The list was criticised for its lack of diversity (including women, people of colour, the Irish). Readers added another 15, of which 6 were by women.

If the proportion of women rises above 17% in Hollywood crowds people believe that women are in the majority, according to Caroline Criados-Perez author of Do it like a Woman. In lists of fiction the threshold appears to be about about 20-25%.

Perhaps the problem is the lists. The idea of the 100 best in fiction is subjective, and reflects the compilers’ tastes, prejudices, knowledge, experiences. Guess who compiles the lists!

The Vida Count

Research is undertaken annually by VIDA Women in Literary Arts and can now show the picture of women writers in a number of categories in leading literary journals over 5 years.

The 2014 VIDA count tells a vital story about the lack of parity in the literary arts. In addition to surfacing the barriers women face in the literary space, the research shows that the obstacles are compounded for women of color. Women Authors and the Media.

VIDA looks at the journals and counts, by gender, its reviewers, the authors reviewed and the bylines of its journalists. Here are the charts for two UK based journals: Granta, which does comparatively well and the TLS, which does not. The men are in red, the women in blue.

200 Granta Overall1

200 LRB Overall6

And here is a particularly depressing chart if you are a woman author trying to get attention for your books from New York Review of Books. At least it improved at the last count.

200 NYRB Authors-Reviewed6

More than numbers

And it’s more than numbers. Meg Wolitzer wrote about the women’s fiction question in the New York Times in an article called The Second Shelf: on rules of literary fiction for men and women.

She uses the term ‘women’s fiction’ to refer to literature written by women, but acknowledges that it is used to describe

a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and might well find a big, ready-made audience.

All fiction by women gets lumped into this category, especially by some men, as ‘one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them,’ she argues. She looks at reviewing, Amazon categories, book jackets, book length, the gender of the main characters which all indicate to readers what one might call the gender of the book. And that there are exceptions (prize winning books by women for example) does not indicate an approaching literary idyll. As poet and literary critic Katha Pollitt says

For every one woman, there’s room for three men.

The eminent historian Mary Beard has shown how women in public spaces have always been silenced by men, from Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey onwards. Her LRB lecture was called The Public Voice of Women.

Here are more exposes of how women writers are treated.

16 things sexist male writers say by Christine Stoddard in Huffington Post 29.7.15

Gendered travel writing How not to be Elizabeth Gilbert by Jessa Crispin in Boston Review 20.7.15 ‘Men go on adventures, women on journeys of self-discovery’

Women know your place by Tracy Kuhn on Women Writers, Women’s Books 3.7.15

Women in Translation Month Biblibio 21.5.15 who followed up the introductory post with 31 daily posts in August.

What to do?

189 Do it coverCaroline Criados-Perez (Do it like a Woman) ascribes male domination to the male default. This is the attitude that women are the exceptions, men the norm. Only exceptional novels make the lists, are reviewed, are published. We must expose it, show it up for what it is and for how it deprives everyone.

Go on counting, and go on publishing the figures. Go VIDA!

Follow the example of #Readwomen, not necessarily to read women only but to be conscious of the proportion of women writers and take some corrective action if necessary. I posted about #Readwomen in June 2014. It was my 100th post on Bookword.

159 BWPFF 2015 logoTake account of the long and short lists from the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction. It is likely that we will need a women’s prize for the foreseeable future. I wrote a post about the need for such a prize in 2013 called Who or what are literary prizes for?

Promote specific initiatives, such as Women in Translation Month. This twitter focus -#WITmonth – brought many great translated works of fiction to readers’ attention. My contribution was The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

Bookword includes a series that highlights older women in fiction, nearly all written by women. I believe that we need to see images, read books, watch plays and films about those who are less visible in our world than white, middle-aged, males or beautiful young people.

Talk about the obstacles, and praise the breakthroughs and advances. Publishers, editors, list compilers, bookstore buyers, judges panels – they all need to be aware of the bias towards male writers, and be prepared to justify it when they continue it. And they need to know about all the great novels by women and how we want to read them.

And it matters because …?

Because the job of fiction is to take people to worlds that are other than their own, worlds elsewhere, show different perspectives, understandings, experiences. Reducing access to the 51%’s other worlds makes no sense.

175 Womenppower symbolThis is my 200th blog post. It matters to me and it should matter to everyone who enjoys great fiction (which should be everyone, but that’s for another post!). So I shall stop focusing on the dispiritedness and go forth again, into the struggle.

Is there some action you can propose to promote women’s fiction?

Please subscribe by entering your email address in the box. You will receive emails about future posts.


Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews