A much-publicized feature of Hillary Clinton's London book tour in October was a sitdown with Mary Beard to talk about women's public voices and the obstacles to female power. Beard, the erudite, energetic and jolly professor of classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, knows a lot about both these topics. A celebrity in the U.K., she often appears on radio and TV, publishes best-selling books ("SPQR," "Pompeii") and writes a blog called "A Don's Life" for the Times Literary Supplement.
She’s also controversial, most recently for her arguments about the ethnic diversity of Roman Britain. And she’s been trolled on Twitter and attacked in print both for her feminist positions and her long gray hair. Beard always fights back, with humor and the confidence of intellectual authority. Indeed, she has so many fans in the U.K. that she’s perilously close to becoming a cozy “national treasure,” like Alan Bennett and Judi Dench.
But Beard hasn't lost her bite. In the two essays that make up her new book, "Women & Power," she shows first, how women have been silenced in public life as far back as the Greeks and the Romans, and second, how ancient images of female monstrosity from Clytemnestra to Medusa have been endlessly recycled to undermine women's access to political power. In "The Odyssey," Penelope's son tells her to shut up in the great hall and go back to her spinning and weaving because speech is "the business of men."
In the classical era, Beard explains, "public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn't do: They were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender."
Even now, women who speak forcefully in public are called strident or shrill. Elizabeth Warren , Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand have been silenced in the Senate and insulted in the president's tweets. The snaky head of Medusa (Freud called it a symbol of castration anxiety) was used to demonize German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May and, in 2016, Clinton, with a meme of Trump decapitating her. The ultimate way to silence a woman is to lock her up or kill her.
To be heard and taken seriously is a prerequisite to power, Beard notes. And despite misogyny and buffoonery, women have persisted in demanding respect.
Some have adopted androgynous signals of leadership. Margaret Thatcher got speech training to lower her voice. Others wear pantsuits, a point Beard illustrates with an amusing picture of Clinton and Merkel greeting each other in identical uniforms like reunited Shakespearean twins.
But, she admits, that masquerade misses the real problem: “Rather than push women into voice-training classes to get a nice, deep, husky and entirely artificial tone, we should be thinking more about the fault-lines and fractures that underlie dominant male discourse.”
Ah, yes — a bit more thinking. Maybe a study group, the first step British feminists always proposed back in 1972, when I was in the women's movement in London. But then what? That's the rub.
Beard herself is a practiced speaker and writer, who deploys an accessible language with intelligence, wit and a disarmingly personal voice. She believes in confronting a male antagonist and has done it successfully in a debate with Boris Johnson. But for all of her learning, charm, and pluck, even she is at a loss when it comes to changing the status quo.
After a deft summary of the way women are silenced, interrupted, patronized, passed over and ignored in debate, speeches, meetings and discussions, Beard asks, “What’s the practical remedy?”
“Like most women,” she admits, “I wish I knew.”
Moreover, she concedes, "feminist efforts over half a century" to reclaim Medusa and other hostile images of female power haven't made "a blind bit of difference to the way she has been used in attacks on female politicians." Although she notes that Black Lives Matter was founded by three women, she has to admit that few of us know their names. (As Virginia Woolf first said, "Anon . . . was often a woman.") And Beard's conclusions, in her own words, are "gloomy": "We have not got anywhere near subverting those foundational stories of power that serve to keep women out of it."
It's fun to read this elegant, well-illustrated book. But no manifesto, or womanifesto, no individual woman's success, no intellectual analysis, can change the male power structure. It has to be a collective action. The American feminist achievements of this year, from the Women's March to the #MeToo uprising, give hope that we may be seeing a new wave of women's power, based on claiming public speech and political space.
Elaine Showalter is a professor emerita of English at Princeton University.
By Mary Beard
Liveright. 128 pp. $15.95