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Women and Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard
Episode 6116th November 2021 • Breaking Down Patriarchy • Amy McPhie Allebest
00:00:00 01:36:13

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Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today we’re going to start with a riddle: A father and son get in a severe car accident and are both badly hurt. An ambulance arrives and takes them to separate hospitals. When the boy is taken in for emergency surgery, the surgeon says “I can’t operate on him because this boy is my son”.  How is this possible? -- The surgeon is the boy’s mother. 


Had you heard that riddle before? I remember hearing it as a kid, and my mind was blown when I heard the punchline. The fact that the joke is still in circulation, and that it still flummoxes people, is a commentary on how we view (or don’t view) women in positions of power in our society. 


Our author today is famed Cambridge University professor  Mary Beard, and in her book Women & Power: A Manifesto, she writes that despite the fact that there are more women in leadership positions than there used to be: “our mental, cultural template for a powerful person remains resolutely male. If we close our eyes and try to conjure up the image of a president or - to move into the knowledge economy  - a professor, what most of us see is not a woman. And that is just as true even if you are a woman professor: the cultural stereotype is so strong that, at the level of those close-your-eyes fantasies, it is still hard for me to imagine me, or someone like me, in my role.” 


Before we get into this amazing book, I want to introduce my reading partner today, Louisa Gillett. Welcome Louisa!




Amy: Louisa and I are both in the Masters of Liberal Arts program at Stanford (more about how we know each other)


Could you tell us a bit about yourself, Louisa?








Louisa: Bio

My name is Louisa Gillett, I worked as a tv producer and commissioner, and then in government roles as a media regulator, in England until my daughter was about 2, and then we moved from England to California for my husband’s work, and it was such a big change for us that I decided to take a break and focus on family life. She’s 7 now, and I’m in grad school at Stanford and I also do pro bono media work for some organisations and charities that I really care about.

My mother is black -  originally from Nigeria - and my father is a white Englishman, and I grew up relatively unaware of the issues of patriarchy – partly I think because they were masked by race – my mum was a teacher and when she came home exasperated at what she was dealing with – it would be something like a white parent calling her the N word and threatening to set their dog on her when she went round to see why the kid hadn’t been coming to school. And whatever consciousness of difference and inequity I had was formed along the lines of those kinds of experiences.  

Also, I went to an all girls school from age 6, so there was never a sense of science being a boys subject or anything like that. But I think the diminished expectations of women are part of the cultural water we all swim in, even when we don’t really know it. And I do remember that by the time I got to the end of my time at University, I was pretty clear that I needed to think and talk and write like a man in order to be really successful –and I remember having a big argument with a gay male friend of mine, who thought that was a betrayal of my self, and feeling really unconcerned by it. It was just how it was.




Amy: And I also like to ask my reading partners what “breaking down patriarchy” means to them, or why you were interested in doing this episode.


Louisa: Response


Well in adult life, especially in the workplace, I noticed that women were vulnerable in a way that men simply weren’t – men started a family and got a pay rise as they were stepping up, women went on maternity leave and found themselves being edged out on their return,  and the women who did succeed – who were really powerful, were mostly really playing men at their own game, and doing it better - in terms of their aggression, their work-aholism, their ruthlessness.I was looking for role models and they were really thin on the ground. And then once my daughter was born, I started to grow an awareness of the things which she could potentially have to deal with, just on account of being female - I guess it was a  slow awakening, but arrived at this conviction that we need significant social change in the power structures of society  - not just for my little girl – and all the other little girls, - but for everyone. I really think society benefits from having a balance of views and perspectives and experience amongst those in power.

Amy: Before diving into the text, let’s get to know the author of Women and Power, Dame Mary Beard. Louisa, if you could introduce her that would be wonderful, and also as a Brit maybe you can explain the significance of the title “dame” :) 


Amy or Louisa: Author Bio









Amy or Louisa: Author Bio

Mary Beard – in fact Dame Mary Beard DBE, FSA,FBA,FRSL is a Professor of Classics at Cambridge University.She was born in England in 1955  - her father was an architect. And her mother was a headmistress – not a position without power. But even so, Beard has talked about her mum always regretted not being able to go to university, about how she was often frustrated that her views and her voice were not taken as seriously as she hoped they would be.

As well as being a distinguished Professor of Classics, Beard has written several books on Classical matters, and presented many tv and radio programmes in England – mainly on Greece and Rome but some on contemporary culture. She’s received a lot of affection for her popularization of history and classics – a lot of people watch her tv programmes – but also a really disheartening amount of abuse– a lot of it from men who abuse her in social and mainstream media for being too old and too unattractive to be allowed a public voice on anything – And often the abuse is pretty directly about the fact that she’s a woman in middle age who isn’t being quiet or staying in the background. Lots of tweets branding her a witch, and threatening her with sexual assault.  In her own words, she ‘looks like an ordinary woman of her age’ – which right now is 66 – but back in 2012, the most famous and poweful tv critic in England was laying into her for her hair, teeth and clothes and actually wrote that she was “too ugly for television”.–Despite the fact that she’s a Professor at Cambridge University, a lot of the abuse also dismisses her ideas about the Classical age -  not on evidence from history but on the grounds that she is ‘stupid’. 

One of the things I find interesting about her take on the Classics is her belief that ancient sources need to be understood as documentation for the attitudes and context of their author.  And that makes the book we’re looking at today really interesting, because she takes all her knowledge of the classical world, and really casts a crticial eye over the beliefs that you can see in all these venerated texts – about how women should be excluded from power, and how the beliefs of the ancient world are still used to normalize gendered violence – and she argues that ‘we don’t have a model or template for what a powerful woman looks like. We only have templates that make them men.’

Plus, this is a woman who has been known to invite social media trolls to tea, and in one case, wrote one of them, wa student who had been outed in the media for sending her quite vile messages, a job reference, knowing that he was genuinely sorry, and not wanting it to spoil his life. She’s really cool!


Amy: This book is divided into four parts: First is a preface, then a lecture that Professor Beard gave in 2014, called “The Public Voice of Women”, next, a lecture she gave in 2017 called “Women In Power”, and an afterword. So we’ll take turns sharing the passages that impacted us the most.


Louisa’s Quotes/Notes


Frustration with learning about the classical world – being expected to think the Ancient Greeks were marvellous, with some (cough) flaws in their views on women and slaves – and I just couldn’t see past the flaws, so Professor Beard’s analysis – of the silencing of women , its roots and ubiquity in the Ancient World - really helped me understand and feel better about my attitude. She doesn’t gloss over these issues, but investigates them, and then explains how it directly impacts on us today- in the introduction she says ‘This is one place where the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans can help to throw light on our own. When it comes to silencing women, western culture has had thousands of years of practice.”(x-xi) – and it’s like finally – here’s someone who can help me make sense of that discomfort I felt, not by attacking it – she’s devoted her life to studying the Classics - but by explaining its impact in a way that is unflinching of the good and the bad.

Quite early in the book she sets up this idea of the way women get silenced with an illustration from our own times - a parody in an old Punch cartoon by Riana Duncan which shows 5 men and one woman sitting around a formal meeting room title. In the caption, the chairman is saying ‘that's an excellent suggestion Miss Triggs perhaps one of the men here would like to make it’ – as MB says ‘there is hardly a woman who has opened her mouth

at a meeting and not had at some time or other the Miss Triggs treatment’ (7)






So Professor Beard puts this issue of women being told overtly or covertly to shut up into the context of this long history of women being silenced - 

– ie not be heard in public

-       Aristophanes 4th C BC mocking comedy about the ‘hilarious’ idea that women might take over running the State

-       In Roman era, Ovid’s Metamorphoses repeatedly returns to the idea of silencing of women in the process of their transformation’ – Io is turned into a cow only able to moo, philomela who is raped has her tongue cut out by the rapist to prevent her from speaking out


AA: I thought of Anita Hill, surrounded by hostile and condescending men; Christine Blasey-Ford, her voice shaking, as if she were the one on trial. Chanel Miller reading her victim impact statement to the court. And I was with my sister Whitney when she posted about her rape and her unversity’s cover-up of her story on FB - she was having a full, physical terror response. Obviously it’s traumatizing to re-live horrible experiences, but this part of the book helped me understand more deeply why women are so terrified to speak in public, and why those public spaces are so powerfully male.


MB traces it all the way back to Homer:

-       The scene in the Odyssey where Penelope comes into the Great Hall and finds a Bard performing to the throng of suitors who have taken root in her house because her husband has been gone for so long. She doesn’t like the music and asks him to play another song, and her son Telemachus steps in and tells her:  ‘go back up into your quarters and take up your own work speech will be the business of men or men and of me most of all for mine is the power in this household’ (4) and she goes back upstairs

-       MB explains the significance of this in a really interesting analysis of the behaviour

, “public speaking and auditory were not merely things that ancient women didn't do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender(17)…as Homer has it an integral part of growing up as a man is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species”(4) – ie your masculinity depends on it. And by implication, your femininity, and legitimacy as a woman depends on staying quiet.


AA: A few years ago I was having a conversation with a woman who is quite a bit older than me. (This is a woman whose mother taught her to always be “feminine” and whose wedding vows - like women of many faiths even today - still included being “obedient” to your husband). Conversation got a little tense - her husband’s ears perked up and he came over, got agitated, “I don’t think you should be talking about this” -Don’t worry, we’re fine. -His stance got bigger, more agitated, “no, you need to stop talking.” We reassured him we were fine, were talking quietly. “As your senior companion I am not asking you, I am directing you to stop.” So she stopped (and so did I - totally stunned, went up to my room.) Penelope and Telemachus - it’s the man’s job/stewardship to monitor and police the women’s speech; it’s the woman’s role to meekly retreat to her bedroom.



-       As victims/ martyrs, usually as a preface to their death. In early Roman history we find Lucretia who denounces her rapist and announces her own suicide.

-       Defend their homes, children, husbands, or the interests of other women  - she gives us the ancient example of Hortensia, who gets away with speaking in public because she’s defending women from a nasty wealth tax for a dubious war effort: ‘women, in other words, may in extreme circumstances publicly defend their own sectional interests, but not speak for men or the community as a whole. In general, as one second century AD guru put it, ‘a woman should as modestly guard against exposing her voice to outsiders as she would guard against stripping off her clothes’ (16)

-       MB draws this through to the modern world –examples like Emmeline Pankhurst of the British suffragette movement, or the famous ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ speech of ex-slave Sojourner Truth  that the speeches women make regarded as ‘great’ are the ones in support of their own sectional interests, or to ‘parade their victimhood’ {this phrase makes me uncomfortable, because a victim shouldn’t be muted, but at the same time, there’s a real deep ugliness in the appetite we have to hear from women when they talk about their suffering, but not when they talk about economic policy.





“We find repeated stress throughout ancient literature on the authority of the deep male voice in contrast to the female. As one ancient scientific treatise explicitly put it, a low-pitched voice indicated manly courage, a high-pitched voice female cowardice. Other classical writers insisted that the tone and timbre of women's speech always threatened to subvert not just the voice of the male orator but also with social and political stability the health of the whole state.” (19)


This stuff is the water we are still swimming in –19th century novelist Henry James


LG: Women speaking in public are labelled strident or whiners or “shrill” – Beard was labelled a whiner in mainstream british press when she responded to a bout of vile internet tweets about her own genitalia, and she says that labels like ‘whiner’ really matter:


“They underpin an idiom that acts remove you authority, the force, even the humor from what women have to say. It is an idiom that effectively repositions women back into the domestic sphere (people whinge over things like the washing up); it trivializes their words, or it re- privatizes them. Contrast the ‘deep voiced’ man with all the connotations of profundity that the simple word ‘deep’ brings it. It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they do not hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it; And it is not just voice: you can add in the craggy or wrinkled faces that signal mature wisdom in the case of a bloke, but past-my-use-by-date in the case of a woman.’ (30-31)


I was very struck by the observation  “when listeners hear a female voice, they do not hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it.” Hate my voice - always tried to make it lower. Teased for saying “hello” when I answered the phone but then voice would creep up to its natural octave. Speaking as a missionary, teased with “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” - even my attempt to sound more authoritative (i.e., more masculine) was interpreted as seductive. No way to be taken seriously.




-       ’Unpopular controversial or just plain different views when voiced by women are taken as indications of her stupidity. It is not that you disagree it is that she is stupid: …I've lost count of the number of times I've been called an ‘ignorant moron’ (33)…




LG: MB looks at the vicious attempts at silencing women who speak in the public sphere, that occur on social media – s has received vicious and intensely misogynistic trolling on social media (genitalia compared to rotting vegetables). One tweet she received said ‘I’m going to cut off your head and rape it’ (37) and ‘shut up you bitch’ is in her experience a fairly common refrain


LGSwedish model hairy legs story:

Ad campaign for shoewear about 3 years ago, featuring a model whose legs weren’t shaved – and the video version of the ad on youtube was bombarded with online abuse in the comments, including rape threats: Beard’s writing is really focused on issues of the public voice of women and political power of women in the public sphere, and the examples that I sent you article links to are an expansion of that into the issues around being seen in public, and occupying public space. These issues of appearance definitely affect women attempting to speak or exercise power in the public realm, as Beard demonstrates, but they also grimly straiten the lives of women attempting to simply go about being a human being outside the house, and exercise that day-to-day smaller-scale power of self-agency. 

















-       cites the eg of how in the Afghan parliament they disconnect the microphones when they don't want to hear the women speak, and women are frequently told to be silent in the face of abuse ‘don't call the abusers out don't give them any attention just keep mum and block them -  you're told’ (38)