Of all the visuals contained in Mary Beard’s monograph Women & Power: A Manifesto, it is Medusa’s disembodied head that remains in the mind long after you have finished reading. The figure from Greek mythology frequently represented as grotesque and monstrous is the figure of a woman subjected to hatred by male gods, and stripped of her power in unimaginably violent ways. She is remembered as a lesson to be taught to women who dare to question, of the consequences of ‘crossing the lines’ laid down by the male world. Predictably, in more recent times, the visages of Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton were transposed on Medusa’s head.
The continuity of the treatment of women’s power, as also of women in power, over millennia is the primary theme of Professor Beard’s lectures that have been published in book form. She brings to bear, upon questions feminists are still asking, her knowledge of the western classics. The first chapter, ‘The Public Voice of Women’, corresponds with the lecture delivered in 2014 and the second, ‘Women in Power’, with one delivered in 2017. The former deals with women’s voices; the author addresses issues of whether at all and how women’s voices are heard, or as is more frequently the case, not heard. Telemachus was coolly able to shut down his own mother, Penelope; Jupiter turned lo into a cow for fear that she will report his sexual advances to his wife Juno; and Echo is punished with never having her own voice, only someone else’s.
These are experiences that resonate in the twenty-first century. Women are deterred from having a voice in public. If they do, they are either punished for it, or their voice and words are moderated to suit the structure already laid down by patriarchy. Their voices too are privatized—if they must speak vociferously, it must be on matters pertaining to the private domain earmarked for them. Most definitely, women must not dare to complain of physical, emotional and sexual abominations visited upon them. So it must be that it is far less significant what a woman is saying, because she must first be made to jump through burning hoops for saying anything at all. This is a classic strategy of deflection, designed to keep women outside the sites of power.
What happens once women do occupy these sites? This question is the subject of the latter lecture/chapter. Medusa’s chilling fate is one example. However, there are others which at first glance, appear to be about women wielding power, till such time as the chinks in the story reveal themselves. In the famous play Lysistrata, frequently staged as an example of women’s feminine power over men, the end is dismal. When the war ends, the men of Athens and Sparta carve a naked woman’s body metaphorically into pieces. A less well-known story titled Herland, published by Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman in 1915, is remarkable for its deep insight. Herland is a fictional place governed by women, where only female babies are born. It is a state that runs efficiently and peacefully. Eventually, three American men manage to infiltrate this Utopia, convince the women that they are not doing a fine job of running the country, and heap sexual abominations on them. The final break arrives when one woman gives birth to a baby boy, and the fate of Herland is sealed in a different direction, forever.
Thus, it is those women who ‘infiltrate’ traditionally male bastions are judged far more harshly as compared to their male counterparts. Beard analyses the treatment of women like Merkel, Clinton and also Theresa May in this light. In May’s case, Beard surmises, she was set up to fail, and she lived up to that expectation. In such a scenario, the author asks, what does it mean that women are now occupying more positions of power, such as in public offices or boardrooms? Could it possibly mean therefore, that such places, for e.g., Parliaments, are no longer the ones where power lies? This is a line of thought that may sound outrageous at first, but must be considered seriously and systematically. The way forward is to change what power itself means, instead of asking women to constantly take on the tiresome burden of breaking and fitting into a world designed by and for men.
One solution that she offers is to stop the association of power with high public recognition. Beard’s suggestion that women continue to engage in all the ways in which they contribute to society without worrying about public recognition can take us into tricky territory. It can work only if men too do the same, but public accolades are part of the performance of masculine success. Else, it will only make women more invisible, with men continuing to take credit for their work.
The author addresses the #MeToo Movement as well. She is a rape survivor, and speaks of the experience in the Afterword. She welcomes and supports the movement, but wonders whether it is yet another example of women’s voices being granted a limited space, in the patronizing manner in which they are usually granted concessions by men, much like having a safety valve to vent anger yet knowing that things will not truly change on the ground. That is how patriarchy can continue its business comfortably.
Professor Beard writes of serious issues with an easy hand, making the language accessible to everyone. It is the mark of a genius to be able to communicate in a simple yet non-simplistic way. Her writing is witty and charming, and at moments, hilariously dismissive of patriarchy, mocking it even as she engages with it. She is well aware that she is addressing a predominantly western audience through the lectures, and so one would be hard put to find examples outside of the western hemisphere. Yet, the manifesto itself has a sort of universal appeal in terms of women’s experiences. It is an invaluable contribution to the debate on the directions the feminist movement must take in the twenty-first century.
Sucharita Sengupta is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.