52 Good Books

Book Review 40 – Women and Power by Mary Beard

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when it comes to power women have drawn the short straw. So when I saw that Mary Beard had written a book about it, I was intrigued as to whether history could really give us a new perspective.

Beard’s premise is that Western literature began with the ancient Greeks and examining this allows us to see what seeds have been planted into our collective psyche. ‘When it comes to silencing women,’ says Beard, ‘Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.’

I didn’t actually know it when I picked it up, but this book is very timely for me. I am slap bang in the middle of a Greek Drama reading group at City Lit (highly recommended by the way) and have just read some of the plays that Beard references.

So what are the attitudes to women we find in 500BC Athens? Pretty much what you’d expect, I have to say. The literature of the time was largely in the form of plays that were performed by men for men. Visiting the theatre was not something that women did. Which adds another interesting slant when male actors and playwrights put words into female mouths.

But I would argue that some of the detail of what Beard suggests is open to debate. She cites Antigone, Medea and Clytemnestra as examples of women who are seen to make an warranted, unseemly grab at power. But in my reading group we actually argued that because Antigone was the oppressed our sympathies lay with her. Perhaps Beard would say this is a modern interpretation. The fact is that all these women commited crimes and the rhetoric appeared to say they got their just desserts. Beard goes on to say:

‘It is the unquestionable mess that women make of power in Greek Myth that justifies their exclusion from it in real life, and justifies the rule of men.’

You may be wondering what any of this really has to do with us in our Instagramming, MP3 downloading world, and you’d be right if only Beard hadn’t constantly cited modern examples of women being shunned and ridiculed for trying to have their share of power. For example there is a well known sculpture of Perseus holding up the head of the slayed Medusa. During the Trump presidency campaign it was common place to see Trumps face in place of Perseus and Hilary Clinton’s in place of Medusa. The one time a female comedian transposed the images the other way round she lost her job. It sounds obscene doesn’t it?!

She also gives examples of Margaret Thatcher getting training to make her voice deeper and less feminine but juxtaposes this with Thatcher’s ability to turn the use of her handbags into her trademark and a mark of strength. According to Beard, women who are successful are able to turn these symbols to their advantage as a signal that they refuse to curb their femininity, so it cuts both ways.

To Mary Beard, power is about feeling empowered and feeling that your actions make a difference and your voice is heard. It’s a sad state of affairs, but her argument is that too many women are still not there.

Next week I’d like you to join me when I go all Young Adult on you again (I wish.) I’ll be reading E Day by Rowe Wildsmith. Come back and join me on Monday.

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