My conversation with Mary Beard begins with Medusa. Or, should I say, Medusa’s decapitated head: bloody, with writhing, venomous serpents for hair.
“The idea of having a decapitation of Hillary Clinton on a coffee mug, as if it was as innocent as anything, was shocking,” Cambridge University’s professor of classics – and all-round feminist Wonder Woman – tells me as we settle down to discuss her latest book, Women & Power.
“It hardly needs Freud to see those snaky locks as an implied claim to phallic power,” she writes in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s presidential defeat. Post-Trump – and in the wake of Weinstein – her novella-length manifesto reverberates with urgency. At just over 100 pages, it packs a punch, deftly connecting classical motifs and narratives to our modern approach to women in power – and our desire to shut them up.
In many ways, mythology sold a misogynist to America in 2016. During last year’s US election, Trump’s supporters hijacked Medusa, the Greek Gorgon, in a tsunami wave of hysteria, casting “crooked” Hillary Clinton as a winged monster whose glare turns men to stone. Souvenirs included an adaptation of a Cellini bronze on baseball caps, tote bags and T-shirts. Trump’s face was superimposed on to classical hero Perseus; clutched in his fist: Clinton’s maniacal head.
Is it a coincidence that Beard’s call-to-arms marks, almost exactly, Donald Trump’s first year in power? “Oh, blimey,” she replies. “It is a coincidence, but I think that Trump has legitimated some of the awful crap that is thrown at women – from irritating sexism to outright misogyny. The excusal of this as locker-room talk is just that – a feeble excuse.”
Sexism and misogyny, Beard reminds us, is hardly a modern phenomenon. Her manifesto begins and ends with a woman called Penelope, who was created almost 3,000 years ago. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’ wife is silenced by her own son. “‘Mother,’ he says, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff… speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household,’ Beard writes. “And off she goes, back upstairs.”
For Beard, this patriarchal put-down is written evidence of a modern attitude that still continues to silence women; women like – yes, you guessed it – Hillary Clinton, who is told to “shut the fuck up” more times than any of us have the patience to tally. Clinton actually quotes Beard in her latest memoir, What Happened, and her shadow looms large over the scholar’s own reflections on sexism, power and gendered aggression.
“I was very sorry Clinton lost,” she says, “and it is still hard to work out why. I ended up feeling that – leaving aside the question of whether the Democrats ran a clever campaign or not – the whole glass-ceiling thing misfired. I think, for a lot of women, the problems of the privileged group of largely white high-achieving women who have just one more barrier to break don’t really resonate.”
But wait – are we ignoring the likes of Angela Merkel and Theresa May when it comes to that glass ceiling? There may be more women in leadership roles in 2017, Beard argues, but our notion of a powerful person still remains male. As a result, she writes, “We have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man.” (Case in point: just consider the power suits that are favoured by Merkel and Clinton.) It follows, she reasons, that women are still perceived as belonging outside the power structure.
When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice
When I ask Beard who she’d personally send a copy of her manifesto to, if she could, our current PM is top of the list. I couldn’t help but picture Theresa May, when reading Woman & Power, I tell Beard – an ineffective outsider at the head of her own Cabinet table. So much is made of her emotions or her lack thereof. We’re constantly speculating about her emotional state and when – and how often – she cries. Is May stuck in a gender stereotype she can’t control?
“I change my view on this often!” she tells me. “When she does well, it is when she manages to conscript her femaleness to her cause.” (Beard points me towards exhibit A: the kitten heels.) “But when she looks weak, they pile in on her for precisely being female. When there was all that stuff about how she cried on Philip’s shoulder after the disastrous speech, I wanted to say, “Great!” I don’t want to hear much about how women in politics should man up. I would rather men ‘manned down’.”
When it comes to challenging sexism, Mary Beard doesn’t just observe from the sidelines – she’s weathered her fair share of backlash and abuse for simply speaking her mind and sharing her expertise. Threats of violence – rape, murder, bombs – are commonplace on Beard’s timeline. It may come as no surprise to her followers that a 2014 profile in The New Yorker crowned her “The Troll Slayer” – she shuts them down like a pro.
In the classical world, Beard writes, women were only allowed to speak up as victims and martyrs. Despite centuries of social and cultural change, we’re still antagonistic towards women who speak with confidence and authority. Can ancient narratives completely explain the relentless abuse Beard has suffered over the years? “I wish I knew,” Beard admits. “It seems very clear to me that women’s voices are not heard as authoritative in the way men’s are.” Naturally, she gets irritated when men lecture her online about a subject she teaches at a university currently ranked second best in the world. As for the classical roots of mansplaining: “It is probably too simple to blame the Greeks and Romans,” she says, “but it does help to see that it is a phenomenon with a long history.” Recognising its ancient roots is, at least, a start.
The overall picture, Beard concludes within the pages of her manifesto, is gloomy – and there are no straightforward answers to point us in the right direction. The pull quote on the back – “You can’t easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure’ – is simultaneously rousing and deflating. Where to begin? Perhaps, with our past.
“When it comes to silencing women,” Beard writes, “Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.”