A Historian’s Call to Arms

By Anne RichardsonMarch 5, 2018

A Historian’s Call to Arms

Women & Power by Mary Beard

MARY BEARD IS one of those rare academics who has a vital public presence. In addition to numerous books, articles, and lectures in her field of Classics, she has an active presence on Twitter and a blog on the Times Literary Supplement website on which she posts every three or four days on topics ranging from the current #MeToo movement to the African artifacts at a recent exhibition at a museum in Bologna. She appears regularly on television. She has had a Lego figurine made in her image.

In 2013, she appeared on a BBC show called Question Time to discuss the European Union and immigration. As she later gamely blogged, social media have “revolutionised this kind of chat show,” and “having a sense of the reaction of people watching […] makes the experience much more worthwhile.”

But, she noted, “It’s what some people choose to say that gobsmacks me.”

Comments about her appearance, looking old, having unruly hair, are the least unkind. Numerous references to Mary having a “[B]eard” appear to tickle the Twitter trolls. And then it goes off a cliff … calling her the c-word, references to her genitalia, threats of violence: “Shut up you bitch,” “I’m going to cut off your head and rape it,” “headlessfemalepig.”

The tweets and comments proceeded apace after the BBC show, culminating in a bomb threat sent to her on Twitter in August 2013, which led to a widespread boycott of Twitter by many supporters for 24 hours.

She has now made it part of her public agenda to comment upon such attacks on women in the media. In a slim volume entitled Women & Power: A Manifesto, Mary Beard has published two lectures, one she gave in 2014 and the other in 2017, to respond to the reactions of the public against women who speak out and dare not to conform to conventional images of their sex. As she puts it in her preface: “I wanted to work out […] just how deeply embedded in Western culture are the mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously, and that sever them […] from the centres of power.”

The first, entitled “The Public Voice of Women,” starts at the beginning of Western literature, with a moment from Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus’ son Telemachus silences his mother Penelope in front of a household of suitors. Beard goes on to describe other famously silenced female literary figures from such works as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which women are regularly punished by having their speech taken away from them.

She contends that there were only two conditions under which women’s speech was even arguably tolerated: one was when they were victims, particularly of rape — though even then, they usually were portrayed as committing suicide right after or had their tongues cut out — and the other was to defend their homes, their children, their husbands or other women.

The second, called “Women in Power,” was given in 2017 after Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton. Here, Beard sets out to find the cultural underpinnings of our views of women in power — what are the roots of misogyny, and why does the West’s definition of power and authority consistently exclude women. She posits that in the West at least, women in power are seen generally “as taking something to which they are not quite entitled.”

Moving to an analysis of the classical world, she muses on the portrayals of women in ancient Greek myths and literature. At first glance, there appear to be many powerful women in Greek culture. But a certain pattern emerges — either the women are masculinized and asexual (think Athena or the Amazons) or they are demonized and cast out of society for their attempts to exercise power (as in the case of Clytemnestra, Lysistrata, and Antigone). Clytemnestra is a particularly galling depiction. She famously killed her husband and his concubine when they returned from the Trojan War — never mind that (a) he raped her and killed her first husband, and (b) he sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, in order to get favorable winds to sail off to Troy to begin with. Now there’s a screenplay just waiting for the right director — Kathryn Bigelow, are you interested?

Her richest example is that of Perseus decapitating Medusa, an image that was borrowed during and after the 2016 campaign with Trump’s and Clinton’s faces superimposed on the respective victor and vanquished. Again, Beard points out that while we remember Medusa as the horrible Gorgon who could turn men to stone, we forget that she was turned into that monster by Athena in punishment for having desecrated Athena’s temple when she was raped there by Poseidon. Since Poseidon, as a god, was untouchable, why not punish her? As we’ve seen in the #MeToo movement, that dynamic hasn’t changed much either.

As others have noted, the image of Medusa is a favorite for those “seeking to demonize female authority” and its usage over and over on Trump paraphernalia such as coffee mugs and T-shirts is the centerpiece for Beard’s argument that we still have a classical mindset when it comes to women and power.

Beard’s book is called a “manifesto,” and indeed it is — she is not trying to write an encyclopedic treatise, but rather a call to arms. She concludes by suggesting that if our current structure of power excludes women, then we have to change it. As she puts it, it is unjust to exclude women any longer — “we simply cannot afford to do without women’s expertise.”

She is surprisingly short on concrete proposals, but perhaps that is where we must look beyond the West, and beyond this generation. Beard’s only cited bright spot is for movements such as Black Lives Matter, which was founded by three strong women who refuse to allow the media to make it about them, putting the movement ahead of their own celebrity.

But as influential as the classical Greco-Roman world is on modern-day England and United States, there are narratives from other cultures that have much to teach us about positive role models of women who are powerful, life-affirming, and wise. Beard’s overall gloomy perspective, I would guess, is rooted in her chosen profession — she is, after all, a student of the past, and this manifesto is very much about the future. We know what powerful female myths look like — the recent Wonder Woman movie literally made women weep for the combination of power and love that it depicted. And we have found it in ourselves to honor powerful women, like Dolores Huerta, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, and, yes, Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton. Western history, however, gives those who would be haters a rich trove of imagery with which to fight back, when they can’t win on the merits. But I have faith in our children that one day, women who run for office will be judged on their merits, rather than depicted headless with snake-hair. It’s a seemingly reasonable goal. And I applaud Mary Beard for so eloquently contributing to the conversation.


Anne Richardson is a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles. She is currently director of Consumer Law Project at Public Counsel.

LARB Contributor

Anne Richardson is a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles. She is currently director of the Consumer Law Project at Public Counsel (www.publiccounsel.org).


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