Women & Power: A Manifesto review – a small but wonderfully potent call to action

Mary Beard looks for the roots of women’s exclusion from decisionmaking

Women & Power: A Manifesto
Women & Power: A Manifesto
Author: Mary Beard
ISBN-13: 978-1788160605
Publisher: Profile Books
Guideline Price: £7.99

Brilliant and dazzling, Mary Beard is famous for making television shows that make history exciting and for large, scholarly books that win serious prizes. This one is small, beautiful and simple. It is also wonderfully potent – and it is a call to action. Women will never, in significant numbers, be able to gain power by struggling valiantly to fit into existing structures, Prof Beard argues, because power is currently structured so as to exclude them. It is, in fact, “coded as male”. That is why, she says, despite feminist gains, “our mental, cultural template for a powerful person remains resolutely male”.

Like all the best scholars, she is open to evidence from all sources. She uses Google's UK image search to look up "cartoon professor" and finds that, of the first 100 images to come up, just one is female, Professor Holly, a Pokémon character. Riana Duncan's Miss Triggs cartoon, from Punch, is reproduced. It shows a woman at a meeting with five men in suits. The chairman is saying: "That's an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it."

Beard also describes a variation: a woman’s intervention is followed by a brief, awkward pause, after which a man resumes what he was saying beforehand. “There can’t,” Beard asserts, “be a group of female friends or colleagues anywhere which hasn’t regularly discussed the day to day aspects of the ‘Miss Triggs question’, whether in the office, or a committee room, council chamber or the House of Commons.”

Beard notes the proliferation of images of Donald Trump, as the hero Perseus, decapitating Hillary Clinton, as Medusa. You could buy this on T-shirts, mugs and bags

Beard's purpose in Women & Power is to dig into classical history and literature to discover the roots of this exclusion of women's voices from the places where decisions effecting society are made and power is exercised. Obviously, Beard has herself broken into the public sphere. Her books and broadcasts are acclaimed. She is professor of classics at Cambridge. That does not stop some of her detractors from posting "vile" online abuse and calling her an "ignorant moron". She admits this is disturbing. " 'I'm going to cut off your head and rape it' was one tweet I got," she notes. But she makes it part of her research.


Starting with Telemachus, son of Odysseus and Penelope, in Homer's Odyssey, Beard highlights the moment when the "wet behind the ears" whippersnapper tells his middle-aged mother to shut up and get back to her weaving: "Speech will be the business of men . . ." he declares. Then there is Ovid's Metamorphoses – "probably the most influential work of literature on Western art after the Bible" – in which the nymph Io is turned by the god Jupiter into a cow so that she cannot speak but only moo.

This calls to mind the experience in Northern Ireland of the Women's Coalition representatives elected to the first post-Belfast Agreement Assembly at Stormont. When they spoke, certain unionists made mooing noises to drown out their voices. Also in Metamorphoses, Philomela, after she is raped, has her tongue cut out.

Patience is not a virtue Beard recommends, and gradualism takes too long. Society has to change how it thinks about power

Lest anyone imagine that it is far fetched to claim that classical stories that are by no means popularly known today nonetheless have relevance when it comes to disempowering women, Beard considers the last US presidential election. She notes the proliferation of images of Donald Trump, as the hero Perseus, decapitating Hillary Clinton, as Medusa. Medusa, with her hair made of snakes, whose glance could turn men to stone, represented the evils of the powerful woman, and she had to be silenced by the most extreme violence. You could buy this image, Beard comments, on T-shirts, coffee mugs and tote bags. It is reproduced in the book, one of many superbly to-the-point illustrations.

Beard is fearless, and wise. She is tolerant, extending a degree of understanding even to those who abuse her and other feminists. She is also angry. Women have expended enormous energy on campaigns for change, with some success, but power eludes most of us. A predominance of women in a forum, profession or institution tends to indicate an absence of power. Patience is not a virtue Beard recommends, and gradualism takes too long. Society has to change how it thinks about power.

"It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just leaders," she argues. It is about "the ability to be effective, to make a difference". One of the illustrations is of the three smiling women who founded Black Lives Matter. Their names, she comments, are not widely known, but the movement is powerful. It is changing the world.

Susan McKay is a writer and journalist

Susan McKay

Susan McKay, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a journalist and author. Her books include Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground