The Mary Beard Effect: A Brief Review of ‘Women & Power’

Mary A. Pura | April 12, 2018

Mary Beard Women in Power

If you’ve been wandering through Blackwell’s and Waterstone’s lately, you’ve probably noticed the beautifully arranged and aesthetically pleasing displays featuring popular female authors. Partly inspired by a surge in public attention to the #MeToo Movement, there has been an outpouring of new and old literature addressing women’s equality. Amidst the heaping piles, you’ve likely caught sight of the shining silver and gold design adorning Mary Beard’s new publication, Women & Power: A Manifesto. Over the past twenty years, Beard has become a kind of celebrity academic. You may recall an incident back in 2012 consisting of public outrage towards the late AA Gill regarding his statement that Beard was “too ugly for television.” Her response placed her among the feminist gods:

“It seems a straight case of pandering to the blokeish culture that loves to decry clever women, especially ones who don’t succumb to the masochism of Botox and have no interest in dying their hair.”

As a professor at Cambridge University and presenter for the BBC, Beard has become Britain’s favourite Classicist. It is in Women & Power in which Beard marries her presence in popular culture with the comfort of her professorial role.

Beard begins by taking us back 3,000 years, referencing a striking moment from Homer’s Odyssey. She recalls an instant in the text when the wife of Odysseus, Penelope, is silenced into submission by their son Telemachus: “Mother, go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff…speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household” (p. 4). Yeesh. Of course as the average female reader will notice, not much has changed.

From there, Beard takes you on a journey through the history of silenced and misquoted women. Even the words of heroic female leaders of the past, like Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth I, for example, have been transcribed and altered by the men who wrote them into our very history books.

Bringing us to the present, Beard asks us to look at female politicians. In what ways are they masculinized to fit within a patriarchal system of power? Think of the pantsuit. If Hillary Clinton wears one, she’s trying too hard; if she is dressed too feminine, she does “not have the stamina.”

When female leaders attain power, they are villainized far more frequently than their male counterparts. Beard brings to our attention the use of the classical Medusa head in depicting the “hysterical” woman. You may have seen Theresa May’s face superimposed on the decapitated head of Medusa (this happened to Clinton as well). Say what you will about the PM, but this act is blatantly sexist and has no legitimacy in terms of political critique.

And I’m hardly scraping the surface in my analysis when it comes to the rampant sexism in British politics. You might be thinking of Diane Abbott and Boris Johnson. While the actions of one are irredeemable the actions of the other are easily dismissed as “loveable” characteristics. You can probably figure out which categories the general public places them under.

This manifesto serves as a simple reminder that what we find to be an obvious testimony regarding the state of women’s equality shouldn’t be the norm. “You have to change the structure,” writes Beard (p. 86-87).

Mary Beard cartoon

As an academic woman, it is important for many students to share Beard as a role model. She is a real life Wonder Woman. Professor Mary Beard has taken her lasso of truth, or rather her PhD, and revealed the hidden patriarchal structures that still strongly dominate our society.

I’m sure Mary Beard would hope that her powerful manifesto is not tossed aside as an old fashion trend. Feminism and the radical idea of women and power is not a fleeting idea. It is here to stay and grow.

Mary Beard mugshot


About Mary

Mary is a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College and is currently studying an MSc in Literature & Society at The University of Edinburgh. Her research interests include 19th century Victorian Women’s literature and Visual Culture. She is a self-proclaimed feminist and lover of caffeinated beverages.

Article edited by Christa Burgin and Sini Eikonsalo

Works cited

Beard, Mary. Women & Power: a Manifesto. Profile Books Ltd, 2017.

Cooke, Rachel. “Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard – Review.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Nov. 2017, www.theguardian.com/books/2017/nov/05/mary-beard-women-and-power-review-modern-feminist-classic.

Ling, Thomas. “Civilisations Presenter Mary Beard: ‘I’m Really Glad I Didn’t Do TV until I Was 50.’” Radio Times, 1 Mar. 2018, www.radiotimes.com/news/tv/2018-03-01/civilisations-bbc-mary-beard/.

Rojas, John-Paul Ford. “Mary Beard Hits Back at AA Gill after He Brands Her ‘Too Ugly for Television’.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 24 Apr. 2012, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/celebritynews/9223149/Mary-Beard-hits-back-at-AA-Gill-after-he-brands-her-too-ugly-for-television.html.

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