Women & Power | Mary Beard

Summary of: Women & Power: A Manifesto
By: Mary Beard


Prepare to delve into the intriguing world of women and power through the lens of classical Greece and Rome in Mary Beard’s ‘Women & Power: A Manifesto.’ This book summary will explore the portrayal of powerful female characters in ancient literature and drama and how these portrayals defined ancient perspectives on the roles of women in their societies. The summary will also discuss the historically persistent repression of women’s voices in the public sphere and how this contributed to their exclusion from political power. As you embark on this journey, expect to encounter thought-provoking insights on the evolution of women’s roles and the influence of ancient traditions on contemporary society.

Powerful Female Characters in Ancient Greece

Though negatively portrayed, Ancient Greek culture has several powerful female characters, especially in Athenian drama. However, these women were depicted as monstrous hybrids, assuming male qualities and failing when taking up leadership roles. Even seemingly positive female figures, such as Athena, were problematic as they often defied typical gender roles. This underlying perception of women as unsuited for leadership positions justified their exclusion from the political sphere.

The History of Suppressing Women’s Voices

From Homer’s Odyssey to Aristophanes’s comedy and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the classical culture showed its disapproval of women’s public speaking as unnatural. Women were portrayed as talkative about sex, and their ability to speak was taken away, as they could not adapt to the requirements of the public sphere. The examples cited from classical works denigrate the place of women and advocate repressing their voices in public. Even the hero’s son in The Odyssey instructs his mother to leave the room, reinforcing the notion that speech is for men only. The Assemblywomen ridiculed the idea of women running a state, and Ovid’s work has a female character whose punishment is to repeat the words of others. The rude command to shut up, which cuts through the air like a knife, has a long history of putting women in their place.

Women’s Exclusion from Public Speaking in Greco-Roman Society

In the Greco-Roman world, women were denied the same rights as men, including the right to vote and participate in public discourse. Oratory was considered a defining aspect of masculinity, and men were expected to be skilled speakers. Male voices were associated with authority, while female voices were seen as weak and damaging to the health of the state. The Greek word for public speech, muthos, was exclusively associated with masculine authority, while gossip was the only type of speech women were expected to engage in. As a result, any woman who spoke publicly was not considered a “real woman.” This male-dominated societal structure created a barrier for women to participate in meaningful ways in public life.

Women’s Voices in Antiquity

Women were rarely given a voice in public discourse during ancient times, with oratory being an exclusively male domain. The few exceptions included Maesia, who was dismissed as an “androgyne,” Afrania, called an “unnatural freak” for daring to bring legal prosecutions to court, and Hortensia, who resisted a war tax as a representative of women. However, women were often only permitted to speak as victims or martyrs, such as the case of Lucretia, who was raped by a prince from the royal family that ruled Rome. Some accounts suggest that she attempted to accuse her rapist, but women were generally seen only as mouthpieces for “women’s issues” or as unnatural. These tropes continue to be familiar in the modern era.

The Limitations of Women’s Public Speaking

Influence of Classical Thinking on Public Speaking and the Restrictions Placed on Women’s Speeches in History

Classical thinking continues to exert its influence on Western culture, particularly in the realm of public speaking. Famous speakers such as Barack Obama utilize rhetorical techniques borrowed from legendary Roman orators like Cicero. However, women who speak in public continue to face significant obstacles. For example, Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech is frequently taught in British schools, with her words serving as an acknowledgment of both women’s fragility in the public realm and her own exceptionalism. Nevertheless, an unreliable witness wrote those words almost forty years after she spoke, and he portrayed Elizabeth as androgynous to explain away her authority.

Anthologies of famous speeches do include speeches by women, but they are often restricted to women’s issues rather than representing the full range of human knowledge. Moreover, these speeches are frequently artificially contrived. For example, famous abolitionist and campaigner Sojourner Truth’s “And ain’t I a woman?” speech, now credited to her, was transcribed in a Southern drawl, despite Truth’s Northern Dutch upbringing.

All of these factors serve to reinforce the message that women’s voices are only allowed in certain categories, and any transgression from these norms is seen as entirely incongruous. The limitations placed on women’s public speaking persist today, resulting in disparate representation and recognition levels for female speakers, despite their unique experiences and perspectives.

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