Mary Beard, a classics don at Cambridge University, has bent her considerable erudition and wit to puzzling over questions of citizenship, power, identity and empire in Western antiquity.
At 62, she is among the best-known scholars in the English-speaking world, and a celebrity at home in England, thanks to her bestselling books, her role as host of the BBC series “Meet the Romans” and her uniquely droll skill in standing down trolls on Twitter.
Now two of her lectures — 2014’s “The Public Voice of Women” and this year’s “Women in Power” — are collected into a short, conversational and very readable book called “Women and Power: A Manifesto” (Liveright, 115 pp., $15.95). Jaunty in tone and wryly illustrated, the book asserts “when it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.”
As it is published stateside, the author accepted email questions from Newsday.
You prize humor, a rare quality for a manifesto. Do you hope yours will catch the wave of this political moment as women speak up to shred some male abuses of power?
Yes, exactly. I have always thought the women’s movement traded too much on outrage and not enough on ridicule. Of course, outrage is sometimes the best and most appropriate response. But a lot of sexism is just very silly . . . and the best response is laughter and ridicule. I would like to live to see a world (I doubt I will) in which the kind of sexism I have been brought up to take for granted (and then reject) is seen not as evil, but as stupid.
You write that for the ancient Greeks, “public speech was a — if not the — defining attribute of maleness.” Why tie speech in the public realm so closely to power? Now that (literate) women have Tumblr and Twitter and more formal writing, has that tie loosened?
Of course the written word is important in all media, old or new. But, like it or not, there is still a mainstream version of politics that rests on the spoken word, and a lot of the basic groundwork of politics more generally (in the seminar, office, courtrooms) rests in the voice. I don’t want to see a world in which women can communicate on Twitter, but their actual voices are not heard.
Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, commissioned your lectures, and you dedicate this book to the classicist Helen Morales, with whom you “talked through the issues.” Does your book exist because three women had enough power to make it so?
In a way, yes. . . . Put that another way, I couldn’t have done this book without my female friends. Over my life I have of course got huge amounts from my male friends and colleagues, too (and they, too, are thanked in the book), but there have been some very special and eye-opening conversations with my female friends, and I hope they recognize those conversations here.
You write that “as far back as we can see in Western history there is a radical separation — real, cultural and imaginary — between women and power.” Do you find parallels in the texts delegitimizing the public voices of people of color, or is that a more modern impulse of power?
Yes, of course I do. The particular configurations of racism do not (we think . . . there’s debate . . . but we think) go back to the ancient world. But the building blocks of discrimination tend to be similar wherever you find them. And the ways you confront that in different spheres really do have crossovers. As I said in the book, there does seem to me — from a U.K. perspective — that “Black Lives Matter” has done something to undermine the celebrity side of conventional political power.
You point out that images of Hillary Clinton as the sawed-off head of the monster Medusa were paraded on “T-shirts and tank tops, on coffee mugs” and ask your reader to ponder the “normalization of gendered violence.” How can this be made abnormal in the civic space?
I wish I knew. But I do think that simply exposing the misogyny of these images — that parade the images of a decapitated woman and place it in the domestic world of mugs and tote bags — is important. I didn’t feel easy about Kathy Griffin’s image of the severed head of Trump, but that was decried publicly. Clinton’s head was on fridge magnets.