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

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4 Comments

Filed under Books, Essays, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

4 Responses to Women and Power: a manifesto by Mary Beard

  1. Lynda Haddock

    Thank you for this excellent summary – and the reminder that I, too, need to buy a copy!

  2. It’s a great book, isn’t it? And like you I admire Beard for her uncompromising stance and refusal to bow to the expected cultural norms. My copy of this is probably my best charity shop bargain (50p!!!) but I went on to gift my fiercely feminist Middle Child a copy of it – essential reading for anyone who identifies as female I think!

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this too. I can see going on being a book I give for some time (like Macfarlane’s book on giving books).
      I await redefinitions of power that can work for women, not necessarily from Mary Beard but worked out by people together.
      Caroline

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