Mary Beard’s Women and Power is one of those books that will make you shout: “Yes, she’s so right!” – “Very well put!” – “So glad someone is saying this!” For those of you who haven’t read it yet, the book consists of two essays on ‘The public voice of women’ and ‘Women in power’ from ancient times to the present, first presented as talks for the London Review of Books Winter lecture series in 2014 and 2017. In them, the Cambridge classicist takes a historical look at the misogyny deeply ingrained in Western culture that still makes it so difficult for women to get their voices heard and rise into positions of authority.
The first recorded example in Western literature of a woman being publicly silenced by a man, Beard argues, was probably Penelope in the Odyssey being told by her son Telemachus to retire to her rooms and attend to her weaving.
For women, if they were allowed to speak publicly at all, were traditionally only allowed to speak on behalf of their families and children. Hence, Beard concludes, female ministers today are still most likely to be in charge of the Department for Education or Families, but not the Treasury.
Getting the ‘Miss Triggs treatment’
Those with an interest in the classics will enjoy the examples from ancient myth and history, while all women will most definitely relate to what Beard calls the ‘Miss Triggs treatment’. This shorthand for a moment in which a woman is wilfully ignored and belittled is based on an old Punch cartoon picturing a meeting in which the only woman has just made a point, only for the chair to say: ‘That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.’
I’m sure solidarity with Miss Triggs could lead to a similar public outpouring as the Harvey Weinstein abuse affair that made thousands of women (as well as a few men) share their experiences on social media under the #metoo hashtag. Most women have probably stopped counting the number of times they’ve been talked over or shut up in meetings, they’ve been subjected to mansplainers or never been invited to the important briefing in the first place.
When I was still working in academia, I had many Miss Triggs moments myself. I remember one specific board meeting in which I had been trying to attract the chair’s attention by raising my hand and making eye contact, but was ignored in favour of a male colleague, who went on to tell anecdotes from his recent holiday for about ten minutes. And when I finally jumped in with a point on our teaching provision I was told by the chair that, unfortunately, there was no time, and we had to address this issue another day. He then moved on to the next point on the agenda and another male speaker.
The waiting and vying for attention only to be dismissed by the chair made me so angry that I couldn’t stand it any more and stormed out with tears in my eyes. Needless to say, they were all just shrugging their shoulders, signing to each other that I was clearly mad and carried on as before. They probably thought I was on my period. For what other reason could a woman possibly have to get up, run out and cry? In fairness, it seems a bit ridiculous to run out of a board meeting because you didn’t get to make your point. But if it is the umpteenth meeting in which that has happened after several years of service, when you thought your colleagues should know that you probably had something valid to say, then something is clearly not right.
I was so angry and sick and tired of being ignored that I subsequently produced a little sign, saying “Can I please say something?” on one side, and “Can I finish my sentence, please?” on the other to hold up during meetings to draw attention to myself. I can’t even remember if it made much difference. But at least it made me feel better to have something to hold on to.
Women are either ‘too nice’ or aggressive
I’ve been told many times that I’m either ‘too nice’ or ‘too sensitive’ for academic life (‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!’ Quote.), as if either of those things were negative as such. ‘Nice’ certainly makes you more approachable to your students, while ‘sensitive’ might actually help you to understand and empathise with them, instead of just managing them and administering them away from you. But it also implies that there is an expected (male?) way of being and behaving in the academic world that is alien to many women. And if you do loudly assert yourself you’re quickly branded aggressive and difficult and sidelined in other ways.
I probably don’t need to explain how you often feel as a woman at a conference listening to one ‘manel’ (thanks to David Armitage for this term) after another before you reach the section on ‘gender’ where women are also allowed to speak – after lunch before the postgraduate session, when most men are already heading for their trains. In fairness, there are many conferences now that are quite different. It’s partly a generation thing, and some subject areas change more quickly than others. But we are not quite there yet.
I now work as a journalist for an international press agency, where several of the deputy editors-in-chief are women, where women are news chiefs and desk chiefs, political correspondents and foreign correspondents. As I never tire to point out, even ‘our man in Kabul’ is a woman. I am not saying that journalism isn’t sexist or that women are not sometimes subjected to the odd bit of mansplaining, but if anyone dared to question the fundamental equality between men and women in my current work environment, they’d certainly be in for a handbagging.
But, back to Mary Beard, who in her book moves effortlessly from the absurdity of women in power depicted in Aristophanes’ plays to the abuse ‘mouthy’ women suffer these days on social media for daring to have an opinion. She questions why it is perceived as entertaining buffoonery when Boris Johnson gets his facts muddled in an interview, but gross incompetence when Diane Abbott does the same, and why women just do not fit the bill when there’s a vacancy for president of the United States.
Changing perceptions of power
Towards the end of the book, Beard makes a very important point: ‘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’ (83). Changing that means ‘thinking about power differently.’ What she has in mind is ‘the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually. It is power in that sense that many women feel they don’t have – and that they want.’ (86)
Alas, Beard all but hints at how this change might be brought about in this short but powerful manifesto for women. For there is yet a long way to go. So all I can do is repeat the comment left by one of my friends on Facebook in response to my recent purchase: ‘Share it with every man you know!’