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Women and Power

A Manifesto

By Mary Beard
16-minute read
Audio available
Women and Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

In Women and Power (2017), Mary Beard brings her considerable expertise and wry wit to bear on history's treatment of powerful women. Britain's best-known classicist retells stories from the ancient world and brings her analytical insight to the modern day. Beard explores the cultural roots of misogyny, the vilification of women’s voices, and asks whether it’s time for power to be redefined.

  • History buffs
  • People interested in feminism
  • People looking for context to current discussions about sexual harassment, abuse of power and the #MeToo movement

Mary Beard is a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Newnham College and the British Academy as well as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has been classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement since 1992. She has hosted numerous television programs on the classical world including Civilizations and Julius Caesar Revealed and published best-sellers such as Pompeii and SPQR.

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Women and Power

A Manifesto

By Mary Beard
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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Women and Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard
Synopsis

In Women and Power (2017), Mary Beard brings her considerable expertise and wry wit to bear on history's treatment of powerful women. Britain's best-known classicist retells stories from the ancient world and brings her analytical insight to the modern day. Beard explores the cultural roots of misogyny, the vilification of women’s voices, and asks whether it’s time for power to be redefined.

Key idea 1 of 10

The idea of women successfully wielding power was risible or disturbing to Greeks and Romans.

Distant though the worlds of classical Greece and Rome may seem, there’s no doubt whatsoever that their impact on modern Western societies is pervasive. Scratch below the surface, and you’ll see the classical foundations underlying many cultural institutions and presumptions, especially when it comes to women.

Notably, Greek cultural tradition – and Athenian drama in particular – contains a wealth of powerful female characters.

However, these are hardly positive portraits. These women are characterized as monstrous hybrids, assuming male qualities and usurping power typically held by men. Moreover, the assumption of power by female characters in these stories often ends in disaster, mirroring the cultural perception of women and “justifying” their exclusion from the political sphere.

Just consider Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon from 458 BCE. It’s set during the Trojan War: King Agamemnon heads off to fight, leaving his wife, Clytemnestra behind as ruler. However, putting a woman in charge doesn’t go well. Upon Agamemnon’s return, Clytemnestra murders him while he bathes. The “natural” patriarchal order is restored only when her children overthrow and murder her.

It wasn’t just that women were seen as illegitimate rulers, but that when they held the reins of power, the Greeks depicted them as distinctly unwomanly.

Let’s return to Clytemnestra. Aeschylus deliberately uses male-oriented language when he describes her with the adjective “androboulon,” which roughly translates as something like “with manly purpose” or “thinking like a man.”

Conversely, the warrior goddess Athena, the patron deity of Athens, has often been taken as a positive example of a powerful female figure. But her depiction is also problematic. That’s because soldiering was exclusively for men in Greek culture. Additionally, Athena was traditionally a virgin, meaning she was very distinct from the role usually associated with women, which was producing new citizens.

In fact, from the Greek perspective, Athena was hardly a woman at all!

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