Thursday, February 08, 2018

Women & Power - A Manifesto, by Mary Beard

This is a timely publication of two lectures by Mary Beard, one on "The Public Voice of Women" and the efforts to silence them, and the other on "Women in Power." I've long been impressed by the eminent professor's extraordinary patience in dealing with online abuse, from the obscene to the vexatious. Here, she's characteristically considered and considerate in laying out her case that,
"When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice."
Mary Beard, Women and Power - A Manifesto (2017), p. xi.
Concisely and engagingly, she covers a lot of ground, with references from Penelope in The Odyssey to Professor Holly in Pokemon Farm. Images inform the text, in part because these were originally delivered as lectures but also because Beard has always used non-textual sources to add depth and detail to her examination of history.

Some of her more academic books I've found hard to keep up with, but this book is very accessible. That's not to say it's all put very simply - she embraces the complexities and nuances involved. Elizabeth I's speech at Tilbury and Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" would both advance her case, but Beard doubts either woman really spoke the words attributed. She won't take the easy path.

There's much to mull over, whether in relation to politics and public discourse, or applied to my own attitudes and behaviour. Following this example, being more considered and considerate, is not a bad place to start.

But if this is a manifesto, what is the call to action? In her second lecture, she identifies the problem as one of elites holding power over the powerless. Now, various people in the news have been calling out elites for some time, but the danger - especially when wealthy, well-connected politicians claim to be anti-elitist - is that it's about replacing one group in power with another. The system isn't changed and the inequities continue.

Beard concludes her second lecture with the wish to rethink power not as a possession to be fought over, but as a verb, "to power".
"What I have in mind is the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually. It is power in that sense that many women feel they don't have - and that they want. Why the popular resonance of 'mansplaining' (despite the intense dislike of the term felt by many men?) It hits home for us because it points straight to what it feels like not to be taken seriously: a bit like when I get lectured on Roman history on Twitter."
Ibid., p. 87.

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