Book Review | In Dialogue With Mary Beards’s ‘Women and Power’

The book is short. I begin with this simple fact because reviews are meant to generate an interest in reading in folks going through a reader’s block, and in those who would rather not pick up a book at all. Length is a factor that has the potential to persuade someone to read.

Legibility is another. So, I must tell you that this book is devoid of academic jargon. Having said that, those unfamiliar with ‘canonical’ literary texts might initially grapple in placing the examples Mary Beard uses. Having studied literature, this structure does not present itself as an obstacle to me. Still, once she explains her position and her argument, the examples become supplementary, meaning it is perfectly alright if you do not know them and take them prima facie.

Interest is the third factor, but the word feminism is powerful enough for me to actually go into any details. After all, if you have come this far, I assume you have an interest in the subject – whether it is in dismantling the movement or supporting it.

Women and Power
Mary Beard
Profile Books (2017)

Beard’s manifesto is divided into two small parts dealing with women and public speech, and women and power. The first part delineates how women have been silenced over the centuries, and particularly denied public speech. Even though she takes into cognisance the history of Western traditions, certain generalisations speak to women across the world. Because she finds a continuity at the most fundamental of levels, that rape and decapitation threats on Twitter echo the violence women have been subjected to in the past for merely having a public voice. The insistence is on the word public.

This is something I have encountered myself. Each time I have written on patriarchy in any form on the internet, I have always come across people who get triggered — sometimes by the word itself, sometimes by what it represents or who it threatens. Many of the comments are full of misogyny that seem to want to convey the sentiments that the rationality of women is inherently questionable – “she doesn’t know what she is talking about,” “she is stupid or ignorant,” “her writing is toxic,” “she is just frustrated with her life” etc.

Another takeaway from such comments is that many trolls believe women are “niched” into talking about only women’s issues when it comes to public speech. Beard cites the example of “one hundred great speeches in history” to inform that most of the women’s speeches included in the compendia talk specifically about women. This by no means, she says, suggests that women should not talk about women’s causes but that talking about something else is considered as encroaching on traditional male territory.

Also read: Misogyny, Male Rage and the Words Men Use to Describe Greta Thunberg

Interestingly, Beard mentions a first century AD Roman anthologist who laid out two exceptions where women were allowed public speech: as victims and martyrs, and “to defend their homes, children, husbands, or the interests of other women”. In the extreme cases then, women could speak for their sectional interests but “not speak for the men or the community as a whole.” Public speech, Beard argues, was “a – if not the – defining attribute of maleness” in ancient Rome.

We have come a long way, but I wonder how far.

The texture of this voice – of public speech, of oratory – was always, and still is, perceived as low-pitched. This is where Beard wants to culturally understand the voice of authority, the voice that exudes power. She gives various examples, from her public life as well as of others, where words like “whines,” “thin nasal tones,” “twangs,” “whinge,” and so on are used to describe women’s voices. She reasons as to why these words matter, “because they underpin an idiom that acts to remove the authority… from what women have to say… it trivialises their words.”

She then goes on to refer to the words used, in contrast, for men’s voices – “rich,” “deep,” “low” and so on. The word “deep,” she says, connotes – with a certain kind of ease and nonchalance – profundity. Let me recount an instance from my undergraduate days, circa 2016. One time, I was late by about five minutes for a lecture. My professor had already entered and such was the placement of the door that I couldn’t quietly enter from the back without being noticed, and unfortunately had to enter from the front and pass her. I asked, “May I come in?” before proceeding to enter. The professor on her part imitated me. I didn’t realise at first because I was busy finding a seat without disturbing the class, but she went on to repeat it, now in a significantly shriller tone, “May I come in?”

This time, I heard it clearly. It was humiliating and unfathomable.

I bring up this anecdote only to emphasise Beard’s point about low and high-pitched voices and what kind of responses they give rise to. I wonder if she meant it as a joke. If yes, then the humour found in ridiculing female voices is more hardwired into us than we’d expect. Remember Margaret Thatcher underwent voice training to lower her pitch “to add authority that her advisors thought her high pitch lacked”. The irony, in my case, was that the same professor would go on to teach a course on feminist theory.

Also read: When Women Get Violent

Coming to the second part of the book. Beard wants us to imagine someone in power, a leader, a prime minister, a doctor, a professor. It’s a typical thing, we have been subjected to this again and again and little has changed since we were first asked to indulge such a question. She argues that the mental and cultural template, for the longest time, of a powerful person has remained “resolutely male”, that we find ourselves ill-equipped to imagine a template for a powerful woman in so far as she is not androgynous. Even when women are imagined within the discourse of power, they are seen as “breaking the glass ceiling.” Such qualifiers, Beard says, “underline female exteriority.”

“Women in power are seen as breaking down barriers, or alternatively, as taking something to which they are not quite entitled.”

The relationship women have had with power has always been construed as illegitimate. In fact, Beard recognises that there is a separation, a radical one at that, that is “real, cultural as well as imaginary” between women and power, as far back as one looks back in Western history. I don’t think our history is exponentially different.

But all is not despair, women have subverted and reclaimed symbols of disempowerment. They have carved out independent territories for themselves, “gained power and freedom out of the exclusion”. However, Beard realises that the rules of the game are masculine, and that the structure needs to be changed for women to have a fair chance. In fact, the fear has always been that
women’s voices will wreak havoc, it will destroy order — social, political, and cultural. And that is precisely what it must do. The order as it exists is terribly masculine.

Towards the end, she alludes to women’s right to be wrong, that they are treated much more harshly if they mess up. She takes the example of interviews of Diane Abbot and Boris Johnson with a radio station of UK. Even in day-to-day discussions, women are more susceptible to resentment if they get it wrong, it is almost like patriarchy has found another tool to silence women. If you get it wrong, the whole movement of feminism will be dragged through the mud.

Srishti Walia is a PhD scholar in Cinema Studies at JNU.

Featured image credit: Twitter and Amazon/Illustration: LiveWire