Breaking the bonds of silence...

According to Aristotle, women's voices were proof of their wickedness. Virtue expressed itself in deep, full-throated sounds - the noise of the lion, the bull and the human male. Women's speech, however, its pitch and prattle, was considered dangerous, even unsanitary. The very sound of their voices, it was believed, could sink the state.

In the ancient world, "public speech was a - if not the - defining attribute of maleness," the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard writes in Women & Power, her sparkling and forceful manifesto. "A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition, not a woman."

Has much changed? Beard points to Margaret Thatcher taking elocution lessons to deepen her voice, and to the trusty pantsuit favoured by female politicians. Women are still regarded as interlopers in public life; when they seek power, drag is a must. Beard draws straight lines from the attitudes of the classical world to the sexism that attended Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign; the harassment women face online; the bomb threats that followed one scholar's suggestion that Britain might feature more women on banknotes.

As if anticipating the recent outpouring of women describing their experiences of sexual harassment, she also recounts the many myths in which women are physically prevented from testifying to the violence done to them: Their tongues are torn out, they're turned into trees or animals.

"When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice," Beard writes.

Women & Power is a pocket-size book that comprises two of Beard's public lectures. (In Britain she is a star, the most public of intellectuals, writing in high-profile outlets as well as tabloids and appearing regularly on TV and radio.) The book is a straight shot of adrenaline, animated less by lament than impatience and quick wit: "So far as I can see from a quick Google trawl, the only other group in this country said to 'whine' as much as women are unpopular Premiership football managers on a losing streak."

It's a tonic to encounter a book that doesn't just describe the scale of a problem but suggests remedies - and exciting ones at that. One solution recommended by Beard - enacted by her, really - is to cheerfully stand your ground. We also must interrogate our notions of power, Beard says, and scrutinise why they exclude women; we must examine how our conceptions of authority, mastery and even knowledge are inflected by gender. "You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure," she writes.

Lest this seem hopelessly utopian, she points to those doing this very work, including the founders of Black Lives Matter: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. In promoting decentralised leadership and emphasising the movement over personalities, these three women are recasting power, "decoupling it from public prestige," transforming it from a possession one can seize to an attribute that can be shared.

What alternatives remain, after all? "If women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?" Beard points out. It's either that - or pass around the hairpins.

Liked the story?

  • 0

  • 0

  • 0

  • 0

  • 0