THE PLOT: ‘Women & Power’ by Mary Beard contains two non-fiction essays comparing ancient and modern examples of the silencing of women in public discourse. The book is a written version of two lectures delivered in 2014 and 2017, courtesy of the London Review of Books, which have been briefly updated and edited. The first essay looks at the public voice of women in the ancient world and how women speak publicly in the modern world. The second goes onto look at women in roles of power, such as political leaders, and how they have presented themselves and been viewed by others.
RATING: This little 100-page book packs a punch so I’m giving it four stars. It was an interesting look at how far society has come in terms of equality of sexes, yet how we still silence women who dare to speak out publicly. Far from drawing direct comparisons with the ancient world, it highlights how our definition of power and gender roles is influenced by the culture and language we have inherited from Greece and Rome (while acknowledging these are not sole influences but due to the Renaissance they are continually re-used and reinforced). Most of all, I enjoyed how it questioned the definition of power. This book just scratches the surface and could have gone much further, but I enjoyed how it made me think about the issues.
GOOD BITS: Beard opens the book with the example of Telemachus telling his mother to shut up at the start of the Odyssey because public speaking (muthos) is the role of men. I felt this example was a great set up and enjoyed the many ancient and modern parallels that Beard presented, particularly looking at trolling on social media. I was also struck by her calling to analyse where power is truly held and, rather than gaining greater access for women in traditional power circles, the suggestion that we need to redefine power and authority.
NOT GOOD BITS: I think this book could have taken some of the core arguments further. In the afterword, Beard highlights the difficulties of turning lectures into permanent print, writing that she resisted the urge to polish the arguments in order to retain the spirit and dynamism of the original lectures. I’m not sure I agree with this choice (although many publishers seem to) because I think reading an essay and listening to a lecture are very different experiences and should be treated as such. I feel it would be more satisfying for the reader (and more incentive to pay £6.99) if the book contained more detailed and extended arguments than the original lectures.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to fans of ‘We Should All be Feminists’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘The Guilty Feminist’ by Deborah Frances-White and ‘Women, Race and Class’ by Angela Y Davis. It’s an easy, quick read. I wouldn’t suggest you rush out to buy it, but grab a copy if you see it going cheap in a charity shop.