Tracing the roots of misogyny to ancient Greece and Rome with Mary Beard
The classicist Mary Beard opens her book “Women & Power” with a scene out of the Odyssey. Penelope leaves her room to approach the assorted suitors who more or less occupy her mansion, waiting for her to give up on long-lost Odysseus and marry one of them. When she requests they stop singing such songs, she is met with resistance from the youngest male there: Her adolescent son, Telemachus, chastises her. Return to your room, he tells her; public speaking is for men.
“I read the Odyssey for 20 or 30 years before I noticed the line,” Beard says. “At a certain moment you just say, blimey, that is a founding moment in Western civilization! And I’d read it however many times and not recognized it. And here we are in the first book of the poem and we have this moment: saying speech is male, and silencing a woman.”
Adapted from a pair of lectures Beard delivered for the London Review of Books Winter Lecture series in 2014 and 2017, the twinned essays in “Women & Power” (Liveright) take on what Beard calls, in the book’s introduction, “the culturally awkward relationship between the voice of women and the public sphere of speech-making, debate and comment: politics in its widest sense.” Speech and power are inextricably linked, and male silencing of women is present at the very core of our cultural DNA.
Beard’s voice, in person, is lively and warm; she sounds at once like the best possible coffee date and the extremely acclaimed academic she is (a longtime professor of classics at Cambridge University, Beard was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2013, one of the markers on a path to knighthood). She’s a relatable genius: Words like “bloke” and “blimey” pepper her speech.
It’s this likability, in part, that led to such a strong backlash against A.A. Gill, a television critic who in 2012 wrote in the Daily Telegraph that Beard, then hosting a BBC program on ancient Rome, was “too ugly for television.” His attack seems to have been prompted by Beard’s audacity to be a woman, then in her mid-50s, who chose not to dye her hair or have plastic surgery.
Curled in an armchair in her New York hotel room, Beard, who turns 63 on New Year’s Day, is naturally elegant and quite lovely. She wears her thick, silver-blond hair long and parted in the middle, and accents her dark tunic and leggings with golden high-tops. Her face, complete with the normal amount of laugh lines, is animated, intelligent and attractive.
Gill’s insults backfired. “He got a lot of flack,” Beard says. “In terms of British public opinion, he got it wrong.”
Beard’s spirited response to Gill’s insults — and to sexist attacks found in internet comment sections and Twitter — have made her, as the New York Times noted in 2016, a kind of folk hero for feminists of all ages (a 2014 New Yorker profile called her “Troll Slayer”).
The first person in her family to earn a university degree, Beard attended a women’s college at Cambridge, entering in 1973 just as second-wave feminism took root in both the academy and the wider world. Scholars in her field began looking for written evidence of women’s voices and found very little. “By the time I was finishing my PhD,” she says, “we were much more interested in thinking not so much about trying to find the lost women, but to think how gender mattered in the ancient world — to see that preoccupation with the standoff between men and women absolutely, fundamentally lay the wellsprings of the literature we were reading.”
The more you oppress, the more you’re preoccupied by those you oppress.
— Mary Beard
Throughout “Women & Power,” Beard draws a direct line between the silencing and invisibility of women in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome and our own current and continuing problems with the patriarchy. Sometimes, she admits, “it is depressing. But I think in a funny way there’s a message for us in terms of saying, look, we’re a million times more lucky than any women in ancient Greece. But it’s really quite helpful to start to see that [our current gender landscape] is not an accident — this does actually have a long history.”
In tracing the persistence of female disempowerment, Beard argues that we inherited a deep cultural preoccupation. “There’s a basic rule of thumb,” she said, “that the more a culture oppresses women, or oppresses anyone, the more culturally preoccupied they are with that.” Just as whites in apartheid South Africa were obsessed with racial classification and separation, the ancient Greeks and Romans spent a lot of time thinking about gender roles — and worrying about what would happen if women were to gain power.
“The more you oppress, the more you’re preoccupied by those you oppress,” Beard said. When asked whether she saw any modern day parallels, say, to how often President Trump mentions Hillary Clinton, she laughed. “She somehow, I’m happy to say, keeps getting in his way!” Beard said. “She’s gotten into his head.”
American journalists, Beard says, ask her all the time which Roman emperor Trump most reminds her of. “My gut feeling is that it’s actually an insult to most Roman emperors,” she said. “Somehow I tend to think that most ancient observers would be just as horrified as us.”
In her role as an academic, Beard says, “it’s not your job to change the world.” Nevertheless, she hopes her works nudges it a bit toward greater understanding and equality. That may be one reason she speaks up so frequently, both as a public intellectual and as a woman trying to be heard in an online world that is often hostile to female voices.
“Every woman is always taught: Don’t reply, don’t give them the opportunity. I think, you know, hang on, that’s leaving the bullies in charge of the playground,” she said. When one man called her a “filthy old slut” and worse, she called him out and he apologized. “Your audience in that encounter is not the guy — who’s no doubt a sad old bloke with a bottle of cheap something with nothing better to do late at night than abuse women on Twitter,” she says. “Your resilience against it is seen by other women.”
Beard hopes that the current atmosphere, in which sexual harassment and assault are finally getting widespread attention, will lead to lasting change. She’s not yet certain, though. She worries the focus on the rich and famous will overshadow the everyday oppressions: “I’m just as interested as the woman by the photocopier in the office.” And she’d like to see more focus on the future than the past. “I’m not interested in naming and shaming much,” she said. “I’m interested in women not having to put up with it.”
“It’s going to be hard to know right now whether the catharsis leads somewhere,” she says. “Or it could be that the catharsis is a kind of alibi, and things go on much as they always have. I think we should not lose sight of the fact of what the main aim is, which is for this not to happen.”
For Beard, who has spoken about her experience being raped on a train in Italy, one lesson from studying classical literature is that the stories we tell reveal and then shape how we think about sex, gender, power and violence. “We have to unpick these narratives,” she said, untangling an invisible knot with her hands. In Greek mythology, Zeus raped women all the time. “You’ve got academics who will look at those stories of rape and say it’s not rape, it’s abduction. And when you’ve got abduction you’re not very far from seduction. And then it’s just a love story.”
Despite the misogyny she sees in the text, Beard says “there is no way, absolutely no way, that I would want people to stop reading the Odyssey. But I want them to read it with their eyes open. To notice it and then to think what it says about us.”
Tuttle is president of the National Book Critics Circle.
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