Women & Power: A Manifesto
by Mary Beard (Liveright, 2017)
What are the big take-aways?
“When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice,” observes Mary Beard in her Preface to Women & Power (p. xi). She ought to know; not only is Beard a classics professor at the University of Cambridge (this slim volume is based on two lectures she gave in 2014 and 2017) but she is famously the recipient of horrific misogynist commentary by online trolls, including death threats, attempting to silence her. They don’t work. As Parul Sehgal reports in this recent New York Times review:
Beard responds, sometimes with fire, sometimes with kindness, sometimes with a bawdy joke. The men back down more than you’d predict and, sometimes, unexpected friendships are struck. One of her harassers took her to lunch to apologize. She later wrote him a college reference.
Women & Power is a superb history of the origins in Greek and Roman culture of the West’s continuing refusal to fully allow women’s voices into spheres of public power; that said, it does not address questions of leadership in ways I had hoped. In her Afterword, Beard explicitly acknowledges, “I would like to try to pull apart the very idea of ‘leadership’ (usually male) that is now assumed to be the key to successful institutions, from schools and universities to businesses and government,” “[b]ut that is for another day” (p. 94). I look forward to it!
Why do I like it?
Despite Beard’s choice not to conduct the above-mentioned leadership analysis that I had anticipated, I still like this book as a resource for leaders. I enjoy history and politics and I’m personally and professionally fascinated by gender issues – all of which have only been heightened by the current dynamics of the #metoo movement – so the book is captivating and timely for those reasons. And Beard is a vivid, engaging lecturer whose points are frequently illuminated by startling ancient imagery which she convincingly argues is still very much alive and operative in our modern world. For example, Donald Trump’s campaign explicitly used the analogy of Perseus (the slayer of monsters in Greek mythology) decapitating Medusa in its paraphernalia against Hillary Clinton. Beard writes (p. 79):
You could buy it on T-shirts and tank tops, on coffee mugs, on laptop sleeves and tote bags (sometimes with the logo TRIUMPH, sometimes TRUMP). It may take a moment or two to take in that normalization of gendered violence, but if you were ever doubtful about the extent to which the exclusion of women from power is culturally embedded or unsure of the continued strength of classical ways of formulating it – well, I give you Trump and Clinton, Perseus and Medusa, and rest my case.
Beard points out that this same Medusa imagery has been similarly used against British Prime Minister Teresa May. She also presents evidence (pp. 54-62) of how of public power masculinizes women who do have it, from Aeschylus’s fictional anti-hero Clytemnestra (from the Greek drama Agamemnon, 458 B.C.) to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “[O]ur mental cultural template for a powerful person,” Beard concludes, “is resolutely male” (p. 53).
In what situations would this be useful?
Women & Power is useful for expansive historical context, especially in light of current events in the U.S. and beyond, even though the book is based on lectures delivered prior to the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault revelations that kicked off #metoo. This book provides interesting, probative and substantial background to the tumultuous moment we find ourselves in, especially in American politics, entertainment, news media and other industries.
What other resources might “pair” well with it?
When I think about women, “feminine” gender identification, power, and leadership right now, what leaps to my mind is the spectrum of workplace attitudes and behaviors that range from unconscious gender bias to discrimination and sexual harassment. If you’re a leader who’s interested in any of this, I recommend: