FEBRUARY 11, 2018
WHEN THE HARVEY WEINSTEIN story first broke, one thing I found consoling was watching two of Mary Beard’s lectures on women and power, one from 2014 and the other from 2017. Beard — a brilliant, erudite, and witty professor of classics at Cambridge University, the author of many books on Rome, and something of a celebrity in England — is also a fantastic performer, and it’s not absurd to say that the way Beard acts and looks is as worthy of examination as what she writes. In her person as well as in the content of her texts, she refutes the idea that women need to be forever young in order to be heard.
The way we talk about women’s appearance matters. What Hillary Clinton wore, her hair, and how it was discussed were all important to the election. Going further back, to cite a famous example, the infighting of second-wave feminists in the 1960s and 1970s over feminism’s public image may have cost women the Equal Rights Amendment. I am thinking of the famous battle between Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem over who would be the spokesperson for feminism. One reason why Steinem was anointed is that she had great beauty and poise, while one reason that Friedan was marginalized was because these were attributes she lacked.
Much has changed for women since 1972, but it is still acceptable to use a woman’s looks to silence her. Beard is an inspiring example of how a female public intellectual can confront this prejudice. I have now watched many interviews on TV in which she is not only not ashamed of her age, but in which she also embarrasses any ageist who dares attack her. And she does not leave it there: she confronts female journalists, trying to persuade them that women in the public eye should go gray. Her point is that we need to see different types of women in positions of authority. Symbols matter.
Of course, symbols are not all that matter. The second-wavers trafficked in symbols and, in some cases, failed to get legislation passed that would increase gender equality. And still, we must, as Beard realizes, wield symbols of the past to change the future. This does not just mean appropriating them. It means crushing them. I think that Beard, despite her classicist’s respect for the past, understands this.
Beard was the first female public intellectual I read about who, instead of ignoring or blocking trolls on Twitter, calmly asked them to delete obscene tweets about her appearance. She writes about them compassionately. In one case, she wrote a troll a job reference. One of her most memorable pieces of resistance against those who try to silence her because of her appearance takes place in 2012, after she was on the BBC to talk about Rome. The late critic A. A. Gill wrote that she was “too ugly for television” and that she should be featured instead on the program The Undateables, a dating show for people with disabilities and facial disfigurements. Beard hit back, quipping that Gill must have never seen a woman her age.
The lectures I watched after Weinsteingate have now been published as a book, Women & Power. Though they do not cover new territory, they should be read and watched. Buy the book and see the movie.
Women & Power’s subtitle is a little misleading. Although parts of the book are prescriptive, it is manifestly not a manifesto. It largely refrains from telling you how to break eggs to make a feminist omelet. It certainly does not tell anyone how to fix men. It is scholarly and analytical, which after the tumult of #MeToo I found to be a relief. It has a terrific bibliography.
In the book’s first essay, “The Public Voice of Women,” Beard tracks women’s inability to speak back to the scene in the Odyssey where teenaged Telemachus tells his mother, Penelope, to shut up. Beard excels at analyzing exactly how and why culture silences women. Reading “The Public Voice of Women,” I paused at two sentences: “[w]omen […] may in extreme circumstances publicly defend their own sectional interests, but not speak for men or the community as a whole.” Some historians would argue that second-wave feminism ran aground because certain departments of it were perceived as only speaking for women. And: “public speech was a — if not the — defining attribute of maleness.”
Beard doesn’t limit herself to classical history; she gathers evidence from across the centuries to document the many different ways that women cannot speak and are not heard. Among the most affecting is Riana Duncan’s 30-year-old cartoon, originally published in Punch Magazine. The cartoon’s caption has an executive telling the one female employee: “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.” As Beard points out, most women have had the “Miss Triggs” experience. (I myself have had it countless times.)
I admire how Beard refuses to uncomplicate the past, present, and future of gender equality. She cautions the reader to be wary of thinking “lazily,” and of communicating in sound bites. The importance of keeping things complicated is inestimable. Recently, I had to tell one group of female students doing a project on second-wave feminism to tell several male students that they could not explain the movement in a sound bite. The female students were reluctant to do so. They were embarrassed. They wanted to boil it down. They wanted to please the male students. I wish I could have jet-propelled Mary Beard in for the day.
Even as Beard argues that one of the obstacles to women’s equality is that speaking in public has been historically considered male, she also makes the more complex point that equity in gender representation sometimes masks inequality. Her example is Rwanda, where “large numbers of women in parliament means that parliament is where power is not.” I have several contradictory feelings about this. As a dear friend recently pointed out, the switch from “chairman” to “chairperson” has not ushered in gender equality. Given this, I wonder if the focus of transgender activists on pronouns may result in rather less equality than they would like. On the other hand, I sometimes come round to the other point of view. The second-wavers’ rejection of the term “lady critic” and popularization of “Ms.” instead of “Mrs.” were important victories.
The book’s second essay, “Women in Power,” starts and ends with Charlotte Perkins Gilman stories about separatist utopian communities to explore how myths and symbols — not just language — prevent women from achieving equality. Here I have to urge anyone reading “Women in Power” for the first time to also watch it on YouTube, where Beard uses PowerPoint to back up some of her points. (One of the most effective examples: In both the book and the lecture, Beard refers, to prove that the very idea of a successful professor is male, to a Google search for the phrase “cartoon professor.” In the first hundred images, the only female figure we glimpse is Professor Holly from the Pokémon game Pokéfarm. What is not in the book is the slide of these professors, which should be required viewing for every promotion committee at which it is shockingly discovered that students write evaluations that are tougher on women.) Nonetheless, the book version does present many of Beard’s most vivid images and arguments. For instance, she advocates the kinds of symbolic theatrical protest that, however small, turns symbols of power on their head. She tells of how she wore blue stockings to her job interview to show her interviewers that she “got there first” in thinking about herself as “a right bluestocking.”
There are only two places where I found the arguments in Women & Power dissatisfying. One is in the section on Medusa, which paradoxically contains some of Beard’s sharpest writing and thinking. As Beard points out, whereas horrifying images of Obama appeared in the darkest recesses of the internet, the ones of Trump as Perseus slaying Clinton as Medusa were available as T-shirts and coffee mugs. It brings into sharp relief how much more acceptable misogyny is than racism. But, in Beard’s analysis of Medusa, she casts the moment when Poseidon turns Medusa to stone after raping her as “punishment to her.” It is. But it also punishes anyone who looked at her — in other words, us. I wish she had spent more time on this.
My biggest problem, though, is with the solutions Beard offers for the continued gender equality that we all face. She expresses impatience with gradualism but she also wants to remind her readers/listeners how far they (we) have come. She describes herself as an optimistic person. Nevertheless, her answer to the question of what can be done — the idea that power itself has to be reshaped and divorced from celebrity — made me grit my teeth. “I would like in the future to think harder about how exactly we might go about re-configuring those notions of ‘power’ that now exclude all but a very few women,” she writes, “and I would like to try to pull apart the very idea of ‘leadership’ (usually male) that is now assumed to be the key to successful institutions.”
As Beard points out, making power a shared, group concept is an old lefty solution. We have been here before. One critique of second-wave feminism is that it failed because it relied on celebrity voices. But Beard is wrong to cite the founders of Black Lives Matter as women who have succeeded without becoming celebrities: Alicia Garza, one of the founders, is now one. For my part, I think that there has to be a better way than the idea of “re-configuring […] notions of ‘power.’” I don’t pretend to know what it is (although being transparent about salaries seems a good place to start). But I don’t know if divorcing political movements from sex appeal will persuade Americans to join them.
As Mary Beard acknowledges, promoting gender equality is an agonizingly slow process. We will all be dead before we get to where we ought to be. Nonetheless, I applaud her for being our heroine.