Bitch That I Am

‘The public voice of women’, the first of the two lectures on which Mary Beard’s Women & Power: A Manifesto (2017) is based, begins with an example from Homer’s Odyssey: Odysseus’ son Telemachus reproaches his mother Penelope for speaking, and tells her to go back to her room and to her work, to ‘the loom and the distaff.’ ‘Speech’ or ‘storytelling’ (μῦθος), he says, ‘will be the business of men’. I have always taken it for granted that this was the way women were treated in ancient Greece and Rome, that silence was considered the natural condition of my sex. In her Manifesto, Beard calls attention to how this cultural template has never stopped being effective, offering example after example of women whose voices have been silenced, distorted or demeaned. Beginning with mythological Philomela – whose tongue is cut out by her rapist brother-in-law when she refuses to stay silent – this excursus goes on to include Beard herself and some of the abuse she has met after raising her own voice: ‘It doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman; if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It is not what you say that prompts you, it’s simply the fact that you’re saying it.’

Professor at Newnham College, Cambridge, Classics editor at the TLS and bestselling writer, Mary Beard has inspired decades of students and members of the public alike. On 5 August 2013, young poet and feminist Megan Beech published on her YouTube channel a poem entitled ‘When I Grow Up I Want To Be Mary Beard’. The poem, written in response to some of the sexist abuse Beard seems to receive on a regular basis by internet trolls, ends by describing the Classics Professor as ‘a sheer delight, an igniter of young minds, but never a victim – like Minerva herself, a goddess of wisdom’. Once, speaking about academic life in Classics in the Independent, Mary Beard described it as ‘a very slow burner’. The way she manages it, she said, was ‘by not pretending to be someone else’. A voice like Beard’s is hard to find: through her words, Classics becomes a livelier, more vibrant subject. In her books as much as in her documentaries she systematically dusts off the cobwebs that dim the light of ancient history; she refuses to accept any of the imperialist nonsense which became attached to the subject in the nineteenth century. Another of the trademarks of her writing is the way she sets the Classical and the contemporary worlds against one another, looks at them with a steady gaze, and draws unromantic conclusions about both. Penelope is a suggestive starting point for an unstraightforward discussion of female silence and frameworks. In spite of her (immature) son’s words, the peacetime world of the Odyssey offers Penelope relative control over the progress and dissemination of her story. Her weaving contrasts with that of Helen and Andromache in the Iliad in that it is not only reflective of the narrative’s construction but also has an actual effect in stalling its progress: she delays an unwanted marriage to one of her suitors by declaring that she will choose one among them only when she has finished weaving a burial shroud, unravelling the work in secret all the while.

For 3000 years and counting, the voice of women has been systematically silenced by men like Telemachus, particularly in the public sphere, and yet extraordinary women like Penelope have continued to construct their own narratives. Even when this is not the case, Beard notes, women’s public speech often belongs to the ‘niche’ of supporting women’s causes. How then can we go about speaking up for ourselves, I ask her, without our public voices being relegated to the role of self-defence? ‘That is the big question. I think that we all have to reflect on the fact that women’s comments tend to be restricted to women’s issues (important as those are – half the human race, for heaven’s sake). And there are two sides to it: we (that is, all of us) have to ask women about broader issues, in a way that will empower women to comment on those themes (it’s not that they are too timid; they tend not to be asked).’

Women’s silence is only part of the issue. Beard also identifies a ‘tradition of gendered speaking’, manifesting itself in the use of terms like ‘yapping’, which undermines women’s public voice. This, too, goes back to the Greeks. In his fragment 7, Semonides of Amorgos taxonomises different kinds of women by comparison with different animals. Of the ‘dog-woman’ he says, ‘a man can’t stop her barking; not with threats, not (when he’s had enough) by knocking out her teeth with a stone, and not with sweet talk either; even among guests, she’ll sit and yap; the onslaught of her voice cannot be stopped.’ How are we to approach texts like these as women classicists? ‘I think we have to look them in the eye … face up to them,’ Beard answers. ‘I don’t think that disguising the misogyny of classical texts from students is remotely honest. We need to use this kind of material to help us all see how misogyny works.’ It is not only modern feminists or classical scholars who confront and even reclaim this ‘bitch’ discourse. Helen, a figure who usually gains significance through being often talked about but seldom heard, condemns herself in the Iliad, ‘bitch that I am’. This outburst combines self-blame and self-assertion, challenging the metaphorical framework even while directing it against herself. Is there a risk, then, that female scholars who study women of antiquity fall into the trap of sectionalisation? ‘I think that we have to encourage everyone to think that a study of the ancient world without thinking of the women is simply impoverished. We cannot give a woman’s view of antiquity in the way that we can attempt at least to give a man’s view … but we need to stop and think about variant viewpoints, muted groups and the excluded (women, slaves, the poor …).’

Classical notions of leadership, Beard’s focus in the second lecture of Women & Power, offer another lens through which to examine the representation, or more notably, the absence, of women. Beard calls attention to the fact that our mental picture of a powerful person, independent of their field of influence, is overwhelmingly male. Can we trace any point in history when the default human became male? This has been the case ‘throughout the classical antiquity that I know,’ Beard tells me, ‘and I really don’t buy the fiction of those powerful women in deep prehistory. Matriarchy I fear is a myth’ – the realm of fantasy worlds of parthenogenesis like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915), which Beard outlines in her lecture. The virgin warrior Camilla in Virgil’s Aeneid may appear an astonishing example of feminism ante literam. Significantly, however, we are informed that since she was a child her father ‘put bow and arrows on her shoulders, and instead of golden ribbons in her hair, instead of the veil of a long dress, from her head down her back hanged the spoils of a tiger’: in exchange for her warrior status, then, Camilla is substantially deprived of all conventional female traits in favour of traditional male attributes. Beard points out to a similar trend in modern leadership. Looking at figures like Angela Merkel and Margaret Thatcher, Beard is interested in how we should redefine our conceptions of leadership to include forms less dependent upon traditionally-male attributes. Is there a way of eradicating this masculine vision of leadership? Beard is vague. ‘I am sure it should be eradicated, though I am not sure exactly how. Every time I get invited to a leadership course, I want to ask, “who is being invited to the followership course?” There are big problems about our view of leadership … it’s horribly connected to celebrity, and to a zero-sum game (I am powerful so you are not…). Power can be shared.’

The lack of female figures in centres of authority is certainly not a phenomenon from which academia is immune. ‘If we close our eyes and try to conjure up the image of a president or … of a professor,’ Beard writes, ‘what most of us see is not a woman.’ Asked what effect the almost total lack of Classics teaching outside independent and grammar schools in the UK has on women’s relationship to the subject, she replies: ‘I think there is a longer history than this, and it is a combination of class, gender and privilege. When I was at school, an academic girls’ Direct Grant school (they don’t exist any longer), I was not taught Latin or Greek verse composition; the boys at the independent school up the road were. I am not sure that this is a question of independent versus state schools, but of long-standing gendered traditions about what women and men should learn.’ In her preface, Beard writes about her mother’s sense that, while the position of women in the West had largely improved since her own mother’s time, ‘real equality between women and men was still a thing of the future.’ Is the attainment of this equality a chimera or a real possibility? ‘I won’t live to see it. But we are going in the right direction, so I am optimistic in that sense. I know that we have achieved it when it is possible to call a woman ambitious without that being an implied criticism.’ Women are often deprived of the ‘right to be wrong,’ and this has a significant impact on our relationship to power. ‘Women are given no space to make mistakes. And that tends to make us more risk averse.’

According to Beard, then, reluctance to take risks is a censure that women impose on themselves and on their words: as Audre Lorde wrote, ‘while we wait in silence for the final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of our silence will choke us.’ In recent months, there has been a surge of movements reinforcing women’s voices: the open letter from more than 300 women in the entertainment industry, stating solidarity to all groups facing difficulties in speaking up about issues like sexual harassment, touches on themes Beard treats in Women & Power, including the lack of gender parity in centres of power and the ‘struggle for women … to simply be heard and acknowledged in male dominated workplaces.’ When I ask Beard about the Time’s Up movement, and what could be done to promote a similar awareness in Classics and in academia of the issues it was born to address, she says that, while ‘we should beware of a “heroes and villains” mentality,’ we also have to ‘constantly shout the point.’ The comfort of silence is exactly what Women & Power warns us against. Beard’s manifesto is ultimately about breaking the silence, be it about gendered violence or about the right to be taken seriously.

The Classics professor practices what she preaches. In response to the latest wave of foul abuse directed against her, this time after tweeting her opinion on the Oxfam scandal, she wrote: ‘I really should have learned by now that it is a very bad idea to try to make a nuanced contribution to a topical debate in 280 characters. But still I do it.’ Beard doesn’t have all the answers, but her voice is always one to take seriously in the realms of Roman and literary history, in contemporary academia and feminism alike.