Book Review: Mary Beard explores the ancient roots of modern misogyny in Women & Power: A Manifesto

Drawing on lectures delivered in 2014 and 2017, Women & Power: A Manifesto is a small, yet powerful exploration of the historical silencing of women in the public sphere. The Ancient Roman and Greek cultures we so often hold up as the basis for our democracies today were never particularly kind to the loud woman and as historian Mary Beard argues, neither are we today.

Beard, a prominent Classicist and Cambridge professor, is no stranger to this kind of gendered aggression. A regular recipient of online insults, threats, and – as seemingly befits a woman with her academic credentials – mansplaining, Beard draws on her both her historical research and her own experiences to craft this short but affronting piece of modern feminist criticism.

The book splits into two sections – The Public Voice of Women and Women in Power – and readers are invited to explore not only the ancient basis for women’s struggle to be heard today, but also the lengths women have gone to to avoid that silencing – particularly in the field of politics. Margaret Thatcher, for example, took lessons to change the tone and timbre of her voice. Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel eschewed skirts for pantsuits. And in the ancient world, exceptions to the male dominated forums of Rome highlight the women’s more masculine attributes.

And therein lies the crux of Beard’s argument – women should not be changing themselves to fit a world that is already stacked against them, a world where we dismiss the so called “difficult” and celebrate the malleable. Women should not be bowing to the structure, they should be working to dismantle it. Small book, tall order, but, to quote our glorious leader,* “a new day is on the horizon”.

But if there’s an immediate solution to this problem, Beard – like many of us – doesn’t have it and Women & Power doesn’t set out to offer answers. Instead, it invites us to gain a little more understanding of the situation, from the internet trolls that feel silenced themselves, to the male dominated cabinets of countries all over the world.

A fitting read in light of movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up, Mary Beard’s Women & Power: A Manifesto is available now through Profile Books / Allen & Unwin

*Yes, I mean Oprah. A girl can dream, can’t she?