Mary Beard Discusses Women, Power, and #MeToo




LARB LAW EDITOR Don Franzen presents an interview with classicist Mary Beard, whose manifesto Women & Power was published late last year.

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DON FRANZEN: With great delight, I’ve seen the wonderful reception that your manifesto Women & Power has received.

MARY BEARD: I’m very pleased. I’m very, very pleased. Because it did hit the right moment, I think.

It’s hard to imagine a better moment for it to hit. In fact, that’s one of the things I want to talk to you about. But just as a starting point: your new little tome, just a little over a hundred pages altogether, is called “Women & Power,” and the subtitle is “A Manifesto.” I looked up the definition, I checked both Cambridge and Oxford, just to see what a manifesto is, and the definition is, “written statement of […] beliefs or aims.” That’s Cambridge, or Oxford: “a public declaration of policy or aims.” So I wanted to start off by asking you, why did you pick “A Manifesto” as your subtitle, and really what were the policy and aims that you were seeking to express?

I picked it because — and I suppose this comes from a slightly academic viewpoint of what a manifesto is — I think that, by looking at history, by thinking of the origin of the way we think, we do actually start to see a way to the future. Somehow you could think that just to do a historical analysis might be all very interesting — but hasn’t got much to do with now. What’s it got to do with us? And, yes, I do agree that exposing the deep historical roots of all this material does point to, first of all, where we are, and it explains to us, in a sense, some of the reasons why we are where we are. But it also hints at where we want to be. I suppose I have written an “analytical manifesto,” even if that wouldn’t have made a very good subtitle. Sure, it doesn’t end up by saying, “There’s four things we need to do everybody: One, two, three, four.” But there is, in a sense, a practical manifesto embedded in the way that I argue and talk. I think, for example, that you couldn’t possibly read what I’ve said without having some sense of what we might do about social media, why women should respond on social media, that you can do it and survive. So it’s an analytical manifesto, but it’s a manifesto nonetheless.

Well, you said often in your preface, you set your aim as attempting to demonstrate, and quoting you now: “How deeply embedded in Western culture are the mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously?” And in your first lecture, you go on talk about that. We’re at a moment when women whose voices were very much silenced are right now, perhaps, being heard more than ever in, at least, my lifetime. And that’s, of course, referencing the #MeToo movement. Do you think that’s a sea change or just a blip on the screen of history?

I’d like to think it was a sea change, I’m not sure it is. One of the things I do in that first chapter is to say: Look, there are some exceptions to the silencing of women throughout history. One of those exceptions is that women have always been allowed to raise their voices to represent the interest of women. And I say, if you look through all those kinds of compendia, which are called things like “A Thousand Great Speeches,” or “500 Great Speeches,” or “50 Great Speeches by Women,” or whatever, you will find that actually the vast majority of them are concerned with what we would call “women’s issues.” Now, I don’t want to knock that, no, because I think that it’s a very good idea for women to speak up for women. There is a question though about how far that makes an impact on the wider discourse more generally. #MeToo, I hope it’s going to make a damn difference. I think it’s a bit too early to say, but I very much hope that. All the same, I want women to be heard talking about anything and everything, not just about the difficulty of being women, however important that is. Look, for example, at the general governmental and parliamentary roles of women, and in a way, you could say, “Well, the United Kingdom has had two female prime ministers,” and that’s true. But it’s never had a female chancellor of the Exchequer. Women have had long and distinguished roles in my country, and I’m sure the same will be broadly true in the United States, as ministers of education and of health and of equalities. But there are far fewer women who have been in charge of departments of finance, of economics, of defense. So I think I’m both optimistic and slightly “waiting and seeing” a bit about #MeToo. Right now it sits pretty well into my overall analytical framework, really. It’s women raising their voices for women. Sure, that’s a jolly good thing, and I’m very pleased, but it’s still sectionalized.

Like the divide between, say, being a medical doctor and a nurse for years and years. It sounds like it might be interesting to have a woman be a head of the defense department in the United States — I would welcome that, personally.

It’s very striking and certainly you could find a couple of women ministers of defense in the world at large, but in Britain, there would be eyebrows raised, I think, if women became a minister of defense, still.

Yes.

I think it’d be a jolly good idea.

So these two lectures that are the basis of your manifesto were the result of an invitation, as I understand it, from the London Review Of Books. But it seems also that apart from that invitation, there’s certain personal life experiences you’ve had in hostile social media communications that also figured into your motivation for writing this.

I was asked to do two lectures. And you know, when you’re asked to do lectures, it’s always very hard when they go on to say, “Okay, what are you going to talk about then?” And you say, “Oh God, what am I going to talk about?” But the very wily and canny editor of the London Review rescued me here and said for the first one, “Why don’t you talk about women’s voices?” And sometimes when you’ve got very a canny editor and they put a subject in front of you, you suddenly realize that, in some miraculous or astute way, they have seen before you ever realized it exactly what it was you wanted to talk about. What I really liked was the idea of being able to put together the kind of absolute crap I’d had on social media into a much broader historical and cultural context. And so as soon as Mary-Kay Wilmers said, “Why don’t you write about women’s voices?” I thought, “Yes, that’s exactly what I want to write about.” And so it kind of followed from that.

You start your book with a reference all the way back to the Odyssey and Penelope being silenced by her son, Telemachus. And you argue that’s still going on, that the silencing of women is so deeply rooted in Western culture, going even up to today, and you give examples.

I think that example is not hugely well known. In fact, even I read the Odyssey many times before I spotted it. But when you tell it to women, it really hits home. I don’t believe there to be a woman in the West, and I suspect I’m talking about the whole world too, who hasn’t had that experience of being shut up, or just as bad, simply not being listened to, because they were trying to talk in a man’s world. And, as I say in the book, once you see that and then you look rather more carefully at the kind of abuse you get on social media then you see those themes are mirrored there too. I think it’s very interesting that the trolls often plug in to precisely that. They tell you things like, “I’m going to cut your tongue out. I’m going to cut your head off and rape it.” It’s about shutting you up. And you begin to see that quite a lot of the abuse that you get on social media — not all of it, but quite a lot of it — is not directed at exactly what you’re saying. It’s directed at the fact you’re saying it. These, no doubt, very sad guys sitting in their mum’s attics — and I’m sure that most people who abuse other people on Twitter are very sad guys — aren’t objecting to your arguments, they’re objecting to the fact you’re speaking at all. And if you go through the history of Western culture and mythology and think about women having gags around their mouths, or the mythology of cutting their tongues out so they can’t speak, well, all that is very much part and parcel of the same kind of cultural theme.

I think your manifesto demonstrates beyond any question how deeply rooted and embedded all of this is in our thinking. But to what extent is it not only a problem that this is embedded in men’s minds but also in women’s minds? And I thought about the statistic that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump in the last election. And an even more alarming statistic that 62 percent of non-college educated women voted for Trump. So we have a situation, in the States at least, where a majority of white women would rather put, essentially, an all but avowed misogynist in the White House than another woman.

A very competent woman, yes.

So what do we make of that? Is this a problem not just with men, but a problem perhaps also with women?

I think it’s a problem with, and for, all of us. True, there are gender wars, and there are significant differences between genders (as my book shows), but at the same time an awful lot of our culture is shared between men and women. And women are as much implicated in some of those stereotypes, however much we also try to fight them. I think it’s possible to be both implicated and hostile to them at the same time. To tell an example, but against myself: I remember the first time that I got on an airplane and the pilot started to make the announcements that pilots do, and it was a woman. It was the first time I’d ever heard a woman pilot. And I remember for a split second, I thought, “Why is the flight attendant making this announcement?” And then I thought, “My goodness, a woman pilot.” And I thought, “I’m very pleased it’s a woman pilot.” But for an absolute fraction of a second I heard a voice of a woman where I’d normally heard a voice of a man, and I thought there was some mistake. Now, I’m pretty sensitive to those kinds of issues, but like all of us, I’m still bound up in the stereotypes. Also, as I say in the book, if somebody says to me, “Close your eyes and think of a professor,” I think of a man, even though I am a female professor! One of the reasons for writing the book and sharing it is that actually facing those stereotypes that you work with helps you to get around them and to overturn them. However radical we are, we’re all in some way bound up in that common culture; the more we look at it, and think about it, and face it head on, the more we might be able to change it.

Your second lecture takes up a parallel subject, which is not just that women have historically been silenced, but also, they have been systematically excluded from any halls of power. And you give some examples of that right up to the present day. It’s really both sides, isn’t it? It’s silence and exclusion.

Yes, and in some ways silence is part of a wider pattern of exclusion — and it goes back in a sense to me saying, “Close your eyes and think of a female professor,” but you actually think of a man. It’s very hard to get any cultural image of a powerful woman that’s a positive one. There is a tendency both for observers and for women themselves to continue to present female power in terms of male identity. That comes across in the book in the picture I have of Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel wearing almost identical trouser suits. You can say trouser suits are very practical, and sure, they are. But also, it’s a signal of a kind of male dress. We know exactly that happened in different forms with Margaret Thatcher, who was taught in elocution lessons to lower her voice so it sounded more like a bloke, because the idea of a deep voice correlating with deep thought and authority is terribly strong.

Goes all the way back to Aristotle, doesn’t it? As you pointed out.

Goes right the way back to high-pitched voices sounding as if they don’t have weight, and they’re whining and screeching and they’re strident, and we don’t have to take any notice of them. I don’t want to blame the women who have adopted those tactics. To some extent, when I think of those who are trying to make it on the national or international stage of power, I admire them for finding any way of getting their voices across. But I think it’s interesting that it still, by and large, comes down to masculinizing yourself in order to be taken seriously. And I think the converse of that are those appalling pictures put out by presumably supporters of Trump showing Hillary Clinton being decapitated, as if somehow that kind of gendered and sexual violence, going right back to the myth of Medusa, is somehow fine. It was when I discovered that you could buy those kinds of things, just like ordinary souvenirs …

Like Princess Diana mugs.

Yes, like Princess Diana mugs. Of course, if you go on the nasty bits of the web, you can find horrible images like that targeting almost anybody in public life. So it’s not that they don’t exist for men. But what I thought so striking about these was the fact that they were so ordinary, they were so domestic, “Let’s have a decapitating Hillary mouse mat.” I found that very shocking. I thought the comedy sketch by Kathy Griffin of decapitating Trump was quite unpleasant. I didn’t think it was in good taste. I didn’t like it very much. But she loses her job for doing it, while these images of Clinton are happily on your mug and your tea towel and your muse mat and your sweatshirts. Quite shocking, I think.

At the end of your book, you present the idea that perhaps it’s our notion of what power is or what power means that needs to change if women are to more equally share in power. Would you care to talk about that idea a bit? Because I found it quite thought-provoking.

I wish I had the answers to exactly how, but I think after you’ve worked on this for a bit, and you’ve gone around and looked at it every which way, what you see is that the current structures of power with which we’re familiar do somehow exclude women. They don’t exclude every individual woman, but systemically, they exclude women as a group. And the blindingly obvious point that then strikes you is: Well, maybe then we shouldn’t be actually working to change the women here, we should be working to change the structures of power that exclude them. That is blindingly obvious, though I wish I could tell you exactly how I would change the structures of power. But for a start, I would try to encourage people to think a bit harder about what they might mean by changing things, and about what power is. We do tend to think of power as a zero-sum game: if I have it, you don’t. It’s also something we talk of “wielding”; in fact, many of the terms that we use to describe it or the verbs we use to express its action are very masculine ones.

And very weapon-oriented. Wielding a sword or wielding power.

That’s right. It’s a kind of a combination of weaponry and phallic symbolism, really. I think it would help us all to sit down and think about power as something which is very much more held in common. We want to get things done. We want to change things. There are some things we’re very happy with in our world, but we want to make a difference. We want to change, we want to improve. And that has to be a kind of first-person plural.

What has actually developed over the years is a cult of “leadership,” very obviously in the US presidency, but I think by no means only there. It’s almost a cult of “celebrity leadership.” I don’t think I said this in the book, but it goes right through beyond public politics to universities and schools and classrooms. I’m always getting offered, “Go on a leadership course.” My response is to suggest a “followership course” because there are two sides of this. If some people are leaders, who are their followers? And what does it mean to be a follower? And do we want people to think of themselves as followers? I am not sure I do.

I have to admit that I am in a fog about it in some ways and in the detail, but I am confident that the broad lines of my analysis must be true; that we’re currently dealing with a way of thinking about power that actually isn’t very fit for purpose. A friend of mine pointed to me, she said, “You don’t know the names of the women who started Black Lives Matter, do you?” And I thought, “No, I don’t.” Now that’s not just because I’m a benighted little girl in England. In a sense, they were operating in a way that was different from the kind of celebrity image of power that seems currently the norm. Whatever you think about the effects of Black Lives Matter, whatever you think of its efficacy — and I’m very supportive of that — there’s no doubt that it got off the ground with a different kind of version of what power was built into it.

Now, I’m not saying that that necessarily offers us a complete template that we can just copy. But when people say as they often do, “Oh, it’s all very well to say that you want a different definition to power, but that’s pie in the sky.” I say, look, it isn’t actually. There are places in the world that operate differently from that. And another thing I want to say, and I’m not sure I do it sufficiently in the book, I would say, look, this isn’t all about who’s going to become US president or who’s going to be prime minister. This is about women who want to be listened to and taken seriously and to make a difference to the ordinary workplace. Power isn’t just stratospheric. It’s not just about the glass ceiling. There’s quite a lot of women who feel so far from the glass ceiling that that metaphor is a real turn off. This is about how we operate together at every level in the culture, whether that’s around a university seminar, or high school, or a retail store, or whatever. It’s about thinking about who we take seriously, how, and why.

I would like ask finally, well, in light of all this, what hope do you have that the paradigm of women in power might change? And if there is some hope, can you imagine in what way it might change?

I’m, broadly speaking, optimistic, though I think it’ll take a long time. I’m 63 and I’ve lived through a revolution in what women can do. I don’t think it’s a revolution that is fairly distributed and there’d be many women across the world who haven’t been the beneficiaries of that like I have, but I certainly have been. And I’ve seen the world around me change, and so I think there is a possibility, a likelihood actually, if we put our minds to it, of further change. I think the difficulty about it is that the kind of change we are now talking about is hard to get done, and it’s harder than the sort of practical changes that we’ve already achieved. When I was a student I used to think that daycare centers and maternity leave and equal pay was all you needed in order to bring about equality. And they’re very important, and even if things like equal pay have not been fully achieved, there’s been enormous progress. But what we need to think about now is not the sort of thing you can legislate for. It’s about what happens in people’s heads. It’s about how people think of the world and how people think about their place in it. Sure it was a struggle to get, in my country, firms to recognize the need to provide daycare centers for their women employees, et cetera. That was a struggle, but it was a hell of a lot easier than changing what goes on in people’s minds. I don’t quite know how we change that. We have to face the kind of prejudice that is just embedded, not only in our culture but also in our language. You don’t talk about men being strident. Many of our adjectives are actually gendered adjectives, even if they pretend not to be. Perhaps it’s my academic bias showing, but the more we look carefully at how we write and speak, the more we call people out on this when they say “strident,” or “whining,” the more we’ll get people to be aware about what’s really going on deep inside when they think of women and think of what women’s roles are. People often say, to put it the other way around, if you use the adjective “ambitious” for a man, it is almost always positive. If you use “ambitious” of a woman, it’s regularly negative. I’ve spent a lot of my life teaching in universities making people aware of those sorts of things. You might say, reasonably, “Well, that isn’t exactly bringing a revolution about, is it?” Well, no, it’s not, but it’s laying the groundwork for a revolution. It’s helping people, myself included, see how it is that we have learned to think. And that’s the first step to changing thought. I doubt if I’ll live to see the job done.

This has been fascinating discussion, Mary. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about this.

Well, thank you very much.

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Don Franzen is an entertainment lawyer based in Beverly Hills. He is also an adjunct professor at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music teaching on the law and the music industry and the Legal Affairs editor for LARB.


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