If there’s one person I think deserves a proper apotheosis, it’s Mary Beard. Though, fortunately, it’s much too early to be talking deification. She’ll be writing, researching and thinking critically among us for a long time to come. In this digital era when power divides are becoming clearer and long-unheard voices are starting to flex their timbre, she naturally knows just where to trace our Western quandaries back to — the Greco-Roman world.
In her latest book Women & Power: A Manifesto (a one-sitting read for the eager, based on two lectures given in 2014 and 2017), Beard makes it clear that the ancient world was one brutal, running water-less circus maximus us denizens of the twenty-first century would rather not inhabit. And while she states Greece and Rome thankfully aren’t our only purveyors of cultural patrimony, their civilisations’ modi operandi reflect a great deal about current constructions of gender and influence.
Ever since the age of Homer, when Odysseus’ son Telemachus told his advice-proffering mother Penelope to sod off in front of his bros — asserting his manly birthright to muthos (profound oratory) and her obligation to be neither seen nor heard — women in the West have had the mettle of their speech tested.
It’s key to note that Beard happily acknowledges the modern progress made by both sexes. She cites her mother in the preface, who was born before women had the parliamentary vote in Britain and lived to see a female prime minister in the form of an Iron Maggie. Yet the pitfalls still routinely experienced by today’s generations of women suggest there is a hell of a long way to go.
Greco-Roman women were virtually without rights, kept veiled and impregnated often enough, were sacrificed as martyrs and virgins. They were regarded as freakish when given the rare privilege to address their interests to male leaders. They also saw their femininity stripped away and rendered extraneous in crucial mythological terms. Merely consider the story of the goddess Athena, a warrior with nothing soft about her, born straight from the forehead of Zeus.
Nowadays, it’s true, fewer girls are snatched from their families to become sex act performing oracles for predicting war victories and fair harvests. More women are business owners and MPs than ever before. Yet they remain a minority, and girl power still encounters more than its share of scrapes and tussles.
When a woman does rise to a top-ranking position in any organisation or government, it’s often regarded as a nice, but rather bizarre, miracle. She will cajole herself into wearing pantsuits and cropping her hair; she will be awarded a lesser salary than her male counterparts (which essentially equates to less liberty to do as she pleases); she will be assailed by hate comments from Twitter trolls comparing her nether regions to Hades; she may even be portrayed on plebeian t-shirts as a decapitated gorgon, à la Hillary Rodham Clinton, forever barred from spewing venom and vitriol with every wag of her unnatural tongue.
The roots of inequality reach deep into our history. Can they ever be dug up and hacked apart?
Beard herself states in retrospect that she would have liked to focus more on such solutions in her book. At least the points she makes and questions she raises offer a pretty decent starting point. How do we change our conceptions of power? When will we stop linking power to the possession of penises, guns, real estate and offshore bank accounts? What sources of quiet personal power are we disastrously neglecting every day?
The Classics can often seem like faraway works, but that doesn’t mean the context in which they were written is too dead and cold to prompt future action, even change. No matter how many X and Y chromosomes made it into our genetic makeup, we must inclusively untangle and rewrite codes mansplained long ago to build better societies, sans bad emperor types, for women and men alike.
Women & Power: A Manifesto by Professor Mary Beard was published by Profile Books Ltd., in association with London Review of Books, on 2 November 2017, and is available for purchase from all major book retailers.