For the first month of 2018, here at the Girls Against Book Club, we have been reading Women & Power by Mary Beard. Mary Beard is a classicist and in this short yet informative book, she traces the origins of misogyny to their ancient roots. The book is split up into two sections ‘The Public Voice of Women’ and ‘Women in Power’ which are both developed from lectures she gave, respectively, in 2014 and 2017.
At only 107 pages and the book itself being relatively small in size, I managed to read it within 24 hours and it was definitely a page-turner. Beard develops a strong argument and discusses many important, and less mainstream, moments of history, whether its factual events, mythology or literature. Reading this book truly proved to me that, as Beard states in her preface, ‘When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.’
As always, I’m just going to discuss some of my favourite parts of the book, although I’ll have to narrow them down a little as I’ve bookmarked more pages than I’m sure you care to read about. Beard begins the first section of the book, ‘The Public Voice of Women’, with a discussion of the Odyssey, a fitting place to start in considering origins. She discusses a particular part of the poem when a mother is condemned by her son to a different room whilst the men are talking, a scene I have seen repeated many times not only in ancient literature but in literature published right up until the 20th century. Beard states that this is an example of how ‘an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.’ This stuck with me in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns, as it has become undeniably apparent just how often women are silenced by men who are willing to abuse their positions of power.
Another part of this section of the book that immediately stood out to me was Beard’s discussion of how ‘women’s voices raised in support of women’s causes’ are all too often ‘niched’ into that area and dismissed by many as a result. Roxane Gay and Jeanette Winterson discussed a similar phenomenon with regards to literature written by women being specifically and unjustifiably labelled as ‘women’s fiction’ which I discussed when we read Bad Feminist and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit as part of the book club. The fact that women who are professionals in their fields feel this like they are being ‘niched’, as Beard puts it, like this makes it undoubtedly clear that this is a problem that needs to be dealt with. Women’s art and women’s issues generally should not be pushed into a corner purely because of their authorship or their topic of discussion. Art created by cis-males and issues affecting them are not treated as such.
From her own experience, Beard also discusses how ‘unpopular, controversial or just plain different views when voiced by a woman are taken as indications of her stupidity.’ This is something I totally relate to and experience regularly. I often feel like this happens to me when I am speaking to older men, but it is definitely an all-too regular occurrence with men of a similar age to me too. In a discussion about politics, for example, often if I say something that the man I am speaking to doesn’t agree with they won’t even consider for a moment what I am saying but will simply laugh and shake their head. This is something that happens so frequently that I am genuinely picturing men who have done this before giving me this extremely patronising shake of the head.
At the beginning of the second section of the book ‘Women In Power’, Beard spends a considerable amount of time discussing the novel Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a fantasy novel about a world with only women that has existed for around 2000 years; the book club will be reading this text in May (click here for our reading list from January-July). I thought it would be interesting to take note in this post of some of the things she says about the novel so we can refer back to them and see if we agree when we read it ourselves. She asks a series of questions the novel provokes, ‘How have we learned to look at those women who exercise power, or who try to? What are the cultural underpinnings of misogyny in politics or the workplace, and its forms…How and why do the conventional definitions of “power” (or for that matter of “knowledge”, “expertise” and “authority”) that we carry round in our heads exclude women?’ These will definitely be things I will be keeping in mind when reading the novel. Beard concludes, with regards to Gilman’s book, ‘my basic premise is that our mental, cultural template for a powerful person remains resolutely male.’
The remainder of this section of the book discusses how the political power structure that currently exists in Europe and all over the world is one that is shaped and crafted for the benefit of men. Beard gives examples of how women have tried to fit into this power structure, for example Thatcher taking voice lessons in order to make her voice sound more deep, but, ultimately, concludes that this is not the best way to deal with tackling it. She states, ‘You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.’ This is the quote that is included on the back cover of the book and one that I think nicely summarises Beard’s apparent aim in giving these lectures and writing this book. It really did make me think differently about how I can improve my feminism and was a great way to start the new year, inspiring me even more to continuously critique systems that exclude women, LGBTQ people as well as POC.
For the month of February the GA Book Club will be reading I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, an autobiography by a strong WOC dealing with issues of gender and race. This is a book that I’ve wanted to read for such a long time and I can’t wait to finally tick it off my list this month.
I really hope you’ll join me in reading I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings! If you do and have any thoughts you’d like to share with the book club, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or/and join our GoodReads group and get involved with the monthly discussion. All contributions will be included in next months post which will go up on Sunday 4th March.
Written by Alice Porter (@aliceporterx on Twitter.)