Women and Power: A Manifesto

Jacqueline Rose in The Guardian:

ColleseumAt the end of Mary Beard’s SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome of 2015, she describes taking her kids to the Colosseum in Rome, where she agrees to pay for them to be photographed with “chancers” dressed up as gladiators, buys them helmets and, “turning a blind eye to the cruelties of the modern world”, reassures them that “we do not do anything as cruel as that now”. Given the relentless, vicious misogyny to which Beard has been exposed, it is not surprising that, in her books on classical life and history, such personal moments are rare. But this one speaks volumes. Beard is our most famous classicist, with a gift for bringing ancient Greece and Rome alive on the page like no one else. She is a writer of exceptional erudition and biting wit, and reading her is always a pleasure. This latest manifesto, Women and Power, originally delivered as two lectures, in 2014 and 2017, under the auspices of the British Museum and the London Review of Books, is no exception. Beard is consistently asking the same question: what is the relationship between the ancient past and today? In the Colosseum, she falters, finding it unbearable, as any mother might, to admit to her children that killing and torture are not long-lost memories ripe for play-acting, but rather the hallmark of the world they will inherit.

Beard opens Women and Power by acknowledging the huge advances for women in the west over the last 100 years (her mother was born before women had the vote). But, in view of what follows, this feels a bit like a concession. Her argument is one of continuity. When Telemachus tells Penelope to shut up, or Philomena has her tongue ripped out so she cannot speak of her rape, they are the templates for the active, loaded silencing of women today in public life. This treatment of women’s public speech as an “abomination” has re-emerged in different ways, from the rape and death threats hurled on Twitter at journalist Caroline Criado Perez for daring to suggest that a woman’s image should grace our currency to the abused and raped women around the world who simply dare not speak. Beard could hardly have known of the daily exposures of sexual harassment, from Hollywood to Westminster and beyond, that were to come.

More here.