Mary Beard’s Women and Power: A Manifesto is based on two lectures Beard delivered in 2014 and 2017 entitled, “The Public Voice of Women” and “Women in Power.”
Beard begins “The Public Voice of Women” by referring to the scene in Homer’s Odyssey in which Telemachus asserts his manhood by silencing his mother. From there Beard provides an overview of the silencing of women in the public sphere in antiquity through to contemporary times. She explores how women’s voices are verbally attacked and their body parts labeled in derogatory terms all because they dared to express an opinion in public; how their voices are marginalized in the workplace; how this impacts women’s voices; and the de-gendered gyrations women have to adopt if they want to be taken seriously in the public arena.
“Women in Power” begins with Beard’s exploration of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, a utopia in which women are the only residents. They live in peace and harmony until all is disrupted by the entrance of three American males. Beard uses this story as a jumping point for exploring our gendered attitude toward women in power. She shows that when men and women think of a person in a position of power, the image that comes to mind is that of a white male. In other words, women are still not used to seeing themselves in that role.
Beard traces this attitude back to women in Athenian drama—Medea, Clytemnestra, and Antigone. Each is depicted as de-gendered, as a monstrous hybrid. She interrogates Athena, a female goddess who bears little resemblance to a female. She is not born of woman, dresses as a warrior, is an eternal virgin, and wears a breastplate with the image of a decapitated Medusa—a symbol of male mastery over female power.
Beard includes a striking illustration of Cellini’s statue holding up the severed head of Medusa. This image was manipulated during the recent U.S. election. The face of Hillary Clinton was superimposed on the face of Medusa and the face of Donald Trump superimposed on the face of Perseus, holding up the Medusa/Clinton severed head. Apparently, this image was fairly popular among Trump supporters during the previous election. The image speaks volumes not only about the tenor of the previous election but also about male power silencing the female.
Beard suggests some interesting connections of classical imagery and literature with 21st Century examples of misogyny. She concludes her work by arguing for a change in paradigms—specifically, for a change in how we define and perceive power. She calls for a feminine centered power structure, one that reflects and upholds the values traditionally associated with the feminine: connection, collaboration, nurturance, and sharing. This is a laudable goal. But the question of how we can achieve this goal remains unanswered as Beard does not adequately address it.
A good introduction to feminist thinking.