Cambridge classicist Mary Beard deploys antiquity in service of today’s feminism

Julie Phillips in 4 Columns:

Phillips_WomenPower_CoverIntroverted. Tentative. Tongue-tied. I don’t want to walk on tiptoe, but what’s a woman to do? If I’m cautious, I don’t get the gig; boldness feels unnatural. A while back, after I did a proposal for a writing assignment I wanted very much, I asked a friend for ideas on how to approach the people involved. “Be less self-effacing,” he suggested. “Just act like a person with a penis.”

I could see his point, so I did my best to put my affect on testosterone. I wasn’t chosen—an actual penis person landed the job instead, c’est la vie—but I haven’t stopped thinking about the advice. There can’t be a vagina person alive, particularly one who writes or speaks in public, who doesn’t question her relationship to authority, and who doesn’t sometimes experience her voice as something borrowed or strapped on.

The willingness to expose that clumsy, artificial join—to be a public intellectual without glossing over the awkwardness of being female—is what distinguishes the outspoken British academic Mary Beard, author of the slim, forthright, and rousing essay Women & Power. She’s known as a Cambridge classics professor, documentary presenter, blogger, and Twitter presence, rather than specifically a feminist thinker, and at first I doubted the continued relevance in the #metoo era of examples from antiquity. I needn’t have. Women & Power, originally two lectures given in 2014 and 2017, begins with the compelling observation that at the opening of the Odyssey, right at the start of the Western literary tradition, is a scene of a man telling a woman to shut up.

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