The Sunday Magazine·Sunday Edition

'To be a man is to speak in public': A classicist explores the origins of misogyny

Mary Beard looks to the foundations of Western civilization to draw a line to women in contemporary society. Her latest book, "Women and Power", is being hailed as a modern feminist classic.
Mary Beard, Professor at Cambridge University, looks to the foundations of Western civilization to draw a line to women in contemporary society. (Robin Cormack)

To get an understanding of the origins of modern-day misogyny, you'll have to go at least 3,000 years back.

That's according to Mary Beard, professor at Cambridge University and Britain's most famous classicist.

Her latest book is Women and Power, and it is being hailed as a modern feminist classic.

A long-time feminist, Beard is no stranger to controversy. Over the years, she has faced an onslaught of hate-filled personal attacks, from online social media trolls who have called her an ivory tower elitist, questioned her historical competence and ridiculed her about her age, shape and gender.

Mary Beard is the Classics Editor of The Times Literary Supplement and the author of fifteen books, including SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome.  

She talked to The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright about female silence, and what happens when women venture into what's considered to be traditional male territory.

We've escaped all kinds of ancient preconceptions and assumptions and prejudices. But, nevertheless, we still make that connection between authoritative speech and male speech.- Mary Beard

The theme of of the book can be taken as female silence. What was the significance of that?

Mary Beard draws a line to a moment in Homer's ancient Greek epic, The Odyssey, to shed light on the origins of misogyny in Western civilization. (Penguin classics)
I've been reading The Odyssey for about 40 years now, and it was only a few years ago that I noticed something I never really noticed before. I noticed a scene in Odysseus's home palace at Ithaca. Odysseus is far away, still trying to get back from the Trojan War. His young son, who's a bit green actually, is at home with his mum — the savvy Penelope.

One day, Penelope comes downstairs and she hears a bard singing very sad songs about how difficult it is for people like Odysseus, her husband, to get home. And she says to the bard, quite understandably, 'Oh bard, play something a bit more cheerful.' And this young, wet-behind-the-ears teenager Telemachus comes over to her and says, 'Oh mother, shut up. Speech is man's business.'

That is the first time in Western culture that a rather green, definitely not very sophisticated, young bloke has told a savvy older woman to shut up. And I think every woman in the world will recognise that Penelope moment. To be a man is to speak in public.

And to speak in public, and speak with a male voice, is in fact "the voice of authority," isn't it?

Certainly in the ancient world it's the voice of authority. What I find very interesting is, we're not enthralled by the ancient world and we've escaped all kinds of ancient preconceptions and assumptions and prejudices. But, nevertheless, we still make that connection between authoritative speech and male speech. It's that wider sense of being taken seriously.

Participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March in Los Angeles in Nov. 2017. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)
You say in the book that taking a longer view will help us get beyond the simple diagnosis of misogyny that we tend to lazily fall back on. What do you mean by that?

I'm not in the slightest wanting to attack the women's movement here. But I think that in popular, broadly left-wing, broadly feminist discourse, there is a tendency to just label discrimination against women — and embedded assumptions about them — as misogyny and think 'job done.'

I think the important thing is to think through much more carefully how it's misogyny, where that misogyny comes from, and then I think that will help you think, 'OK, so what are we going to do about it?'

We have to look hard at those structures that privilege the voice of of men. Of course, women are not the only excluded group here. One could think about ethnicity, and in this country certainly you could think about class. But gender is a key marker of power and powerlessness. Most of the structures of how our world works are biased in terms of men.

What really underlies this treatment of women is not just a few rogue males who can't keep their hands to themselves — it's the power structure in the world between men and women.- Mary Beard

One of the thousands of people who rallied at the Women's March in Ottawa last week. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)
You're making this argument at a time when it seems, on the surface at least, that women have greater access to power than they've had in the last 50-100 years.

When I was a student and I demonstrated in favour of workplace nurseries and equal pay — all things I think are very important — I think we then thought that that would solve the problem. I think that what most feminists have realized is that that isn't the only thing which is keeping women from being able to participate in structures of decision-making or being taken seriously.

What is holding us back is now in people's heads. It's our assumptions and our language.

Negative images of women in power abound. They're seen to be shrill and bossy and somehow unfeminine. Why are these "cultural underpinnings of misogyny in politics," as you call them, so powerful?

I think partly because they run very deep.

One of the reasons for starting the book with the Odyssey was not to say we can blame it all on the Greeks, but we are brought up in a culture which has always dialogued with those images of women. We have a lot of other images; happily the Western world is not solely the heir of Greco-Roman antiquity. But, in part, we've learned to think with those images.

We have been brought up with images of naked women or raped women or decapitated women. Even those people who could not tell you the story of Medusa — of why this woman with snakey locks gets decapitated by this hero Perseus — somehow that kind of image of the woman having her head severed by a bloke with a sword is something that still speaks to our cultural ancestry.

You have gone through a public purgatory from time to time because of your views. You say that it doesn't much matter what line of argument you take as a woman. If you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway.  How do you go on after getting that kind of abuse?

(Profile Books)
Yes, your introduction gave a very sanitized version of the kind of abuse.

To some extent it didn't happen to me until I was into my 50s and I was already pretty resilient. I was in a much better place to say, 'Let's think about what's going on here. Let's not get cowered by that.'

I suppose I found myself thinking what all these people — mostly men but not only men — are saying. Why are they doing this, and why against me? And I looked more carefully at the details of the abuse I and other women like me were getting. And it did become very clear that really what was driving it was the fact that we were speaking. [You hear] things like 'I'm going to cut your tongue out,' and you think that is somebody who wants to silence me. That is about shutting me up again. You can go right back to Greco-Roman antiquity.

But I can also see through these poor sad idiots who are doing it. I think you've got to reckon that what you're seeing here is some bad people, but it's an awful lot of sad people. And sometimes if you engage with them, you can have a conversation which ends up quite positively. Bizarrely I've made friends that way.

What is holding us back is now in people's heads. It's our assumptions and our language.- Mary Beard

As I was reading the book, it was contemporaneous with almost hourly disclosures of sexual misconduct by yet another media person or Hollywood producer. And it seemed to me that the silence you were talking about in the book was dissipating to some extent.

I'd like to think that. For whatever reason, some sorts of women's silence were broken by MeToo. This is the optimistic bit. And that will lead to a much more careful attention to women's voices. I think it's far too early to say. It's quite possible that in five or six years time we'll look at that as a little bubble, when we enjoyed peering into the world of Hollywood and what was going on and the nastiness in it, but in the end everything just kind of closed up again.

Mary Beard says MeToo will have won a much bigger victory if it expands beyond a celebrity-oriented focus. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)
And I think we've really got to make sure that it also doesn't become something celebrity-orientated. We will have won a much bigger victory when we see that this is going right down to the average photocopier at the average office. It isn't just the problems that actors have on the casting couch. This is the problem that women have whether they're working in a shop or a factory or school or university. And there are some signs that the net is being widened but not very many.

I suppose to reinforce a slightly gloomy prognosis on MeToo, what really underlies this treatment of women is not just a few rogue males who can't keep their hands to themselves — it's the power structure in the world between men and women. What you've got to address is the differential power structure, not the gaining of some celebrity scalps, important as that might be to launch something.

You say you're an optimist. Are you optimistic for young women who are coming behind you? Are you hopeful for them?

I think so. Despite the temporary messes we make, I think by and large things are moving in the right direction. I look back to my childhood, and what it was assumed that women couldn't do — if you said you wanted to be an engineer and you were female, people would giggle at you. We know that there is still trouble about getting women to the top of all kinds of professions. The job isn't done. But it's a hell of a lot better than it was.

Mary Beard's comments have been edited and condensed. Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

Please note: The original post about this interview wrongly identified the title of Mary Beard's book as Women in Power. That has been corrected to Women And Power.