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Women & Power: A Manifesto
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Previous Reads: Non-Fiction > Women & Power by Mary Beard

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message 1: by Louise, Group Founder (new) - rated it 3 stars

Louise | 680 comments Mod
Hi all.

This is the thread for discussion our May Non-Fiction read. The theme was History and the winning book is Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

Women & Power
Women & Power is a short (115 page) manifesto, originally delivered as two lectures at the British museum in 2014 and 2017.
From the author's website:
At long last, Mary Beard addresses in one brave book the misogynists and trolls who mercilessly attack and demean women the world over, including, very often, Mary herself. In Women & Power, she traces the origins of this misogyny to its ancient roots, examining the pitfalls of gender and the ways that history has mistreated strong women since time immemorial. As far back as Homer’s Odyssey, Beard shows, women have been prohibited from leadership roles in civic life, public speech being defined as inherently male. From Medusa to Philomela (whose tongue was cut out), from Hillary Clinton to Elizabeth Warren (who was told to sit down), Beard draws illuminating parallels between our cultural assumptions about women’s relationship to power—and how powerful women provide a necessary example for all women who must resist being vacuumed into a male template. With personal reflections on her own online experiences with sexism, Beard asks: If women aren’t perceived to be within the structure of power, isn’t it power itself we need to redefine? And how many more centuries should we be expected to wait?

About the Author (adapted from Wiki)
Winifred Mary Beard, OBE, is an English scholar and classicist. Beard is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Newnham College, and Royal Academy of Arts Professor of Ancient Literature. She is the Classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement, where she also writes a regular blog, "A Don's Life". Her frequent media appearances and sometimes controversial public statements have led to her being described as "Britain's best-known classicist."
Beard is known for being active on Twitter, responding to critics and trolls with reason and optimism; she sees this as part of her public role as an academic. Beard received considerable online abuse after she appeared on BBC's Question Time from Lincolnshire in January 2013 and cast doubt on the negative rhetoric about immigrant workers living in the county. Beard used her blog to quote some of the abusive comments about her, and to reproduce (until the TLS took them down) the doctored images ("pornographic, violent, sexist, misogynist and also frightfully silly") which no mainstream media would print or let her read aloud.

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

I'll be reading this one shortly and share my opinion with you! I'm looking forward to it.

Anita (anitafajitapitareada) | 1033 comments Mod
A very quick read. Although interesting, I don't personally feel that I gained anything by reading it other than a few shared moments with the author of anger and annoyance at the circumstances.

A manifesto should be a plan of attack, right? to me, this was more of an argument that even women in power don't actually have power because of the way they are silenced, ignored, or harassed by the men around them and by society at large. A statement really.

That isn't too say I didn't enjoy it - I did. And I'm sure there are plenty of others who would get an aha moment or two from this quick read.

A couple things I disliked was her insistence that Amazons did not exist at all as anything other than figmented target fodder for male anger at the time. The target fodder part is probably true, but it isn't as if people made up an entire nomadic culture. They (society has always been a jerk, amirite?) just twisted their "unknowns" into an all female horde of angry man hating warrior lesbians. Does the distortion of reality into something unnatural and dangerous sound familiar? I read a really good book on the Amazons a few years back and if you're interested you can ask or look through my non fiction shelf titled "educate myshelf".

And also the depiction of ancient women with power as only masculine or androgynous seemed almost forced. There wasn't page time here for her to assert that, in my opinion, and it unfortunately came off as suiting the source to the story. I'm not saying it isn't true (because I honestly don't know), I'm only saying that it would be irresponsible of me to believe that because she said so based on one statue. And so I would have to find that out on my own. And why would I research ancient art for androgynous women of power when I thought I was reading a manifesto?

See, and now it sounds like I didn't like it at all which isn't true. I'm just trying to give a thoughtful response to the book. I did like her brief analysis of Herland, and I had no idea there was a sequel. so that was cool to learn.

message 4: by Louise, Group Founder (new) - rated it 3 stars

Louise | 680 comments Mod

While it was interesting it wasn't really anything new. I think if you're going to call your essay a manifesto you need to be arguing for something and offering an action plan, or even a solution (however unrealistic or infeasible it might be). Possibly more of an issue with the titling than with the book itself but if you're going to market something as a manifesto it should be a manifesto.

I liked this book fine as an essay/adapted speech but it's not quite meaty enough for people who already know a little about gender history.

@Anita: I think we read the same book on Amazons!

Laurie | 11 comments The issue you both mention that this is, essentially, well trod ground is interesting. I was planning on reading this, but I thought it might have some new ideas to ponder or new solutions since it billed as a manifesto. So I think I will give it a pass since it not quite what I expected.

Anita (anitafajitapitareada) | 1033 comments Mod
Louise, we did! wow I was much more stingy with my stars back then. I remember it as at least a 4 star read.

Laurie, I hate to turn anyone away from this book. It only took a couple hours, if that. But since I didn't take anything away from it I couldn't say you'd miss anything by skipping it. I totally understand the preciousness of reading time!

message 7: by Louise, Group Founder (new) - rated it 3 stars

Louise | 680 comments Mod
To be fair on it, the book is exactly what I expected it to be. It's a 115 page (less once you discount the picture pages) transcript/update of two short lectures. It was never going to go hugely in depth.

Which is why I never picked it up in the bookshop before it won this poll :p

Would still be interested in reading one of Mary Beard's real history books at a later date though.

message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

Read! And I absolutely agree with both Anita and Louise. If this is a manifesto is not as "call to action" as I expect one to be; I don't think it's a particularly "innovative" read to people who are already well-versed in feminist literature, while still not being the appropriate (for lack of a better word) to begin with.

As I'm very much interested in Classical culture, I adored her exploration of these themes through an historical point of view and how engrained this view of power and womanhood is in our culture, something we can't seem to shake even after thousands of years.

However, Anita, in question to "the depiction of ancient women with power as only masculine or androgynous", I thought she did a good job convincing me -- maybe I'm just too guillible, but as this is her field of work and she's been studying it long before she wrote these two essays/speeches, I am inclined to believe in her. It is not hard to believe considering the contemporary examples she listed next to them: that women in politics, for example, "dress down" with pant-suits because when they don't, the focus becomes their clothes instead of their agenda (something I've seen happen time and time again). But yes! I agree there wasn't "enough" time for her to adress that more in-depth and that's actually something I would love to read/know more of. I wish she would write something more along those lines in the future; or maybe I'll just try and find some books on the subject.

Also, as for the Amazons, I think it suffered from that same issue. She did mention a book in the Afterword (The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor) while still expressing her skepticism. I wonder why Beard belives the Amazons never existed? That would be yet another interesting matter she didn't delve into. Was that the book you read?

All in all, I think the biggest "issue" with the book is that it really isn't "a book", and certainly doesn't feel like a manifesto to me. Also in the Afterword, Beard said she tried very hard not to add more to it which I think the book would have benefited from but then it wouldn't be the script of two of her speeches, but a new book entirely -- I would have prefered that.

Anita (anitafajitapitareada) | 1033 comments Mod
That is a great point about the modern counterparts and she did offer plenty of legitimate examples for those. I guess I hate to assume that all ancient art only depicted powerful women as androgynous or masculine. I find it hard to believe. Again, she's the expert, not me!

That book she cited on the Amazons is the book I read. In my opinion it was thorough. It wasn't too easy to read but I definitely came away with knowledge and understanding of not only the possibilities of people and cultures that Amazonian stories stem from, but a studied knowledge of the ancient ways of social thinking across these cultures. It covered a lot of ground! It's a shame she felt the need to cite that with that comment in her book about wasted time.

message 10: by Cam (last edited May 19, 2018 07:54AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Cam | 95 comments I totally agree with all your comments on this book. Very much seemed like editors trying to make money off a couple of lectures (similar to Adichie's two latest books). They are interesting lectures and I am glad I've read them, but they should either be made available for free online or fully developed, as they are very unsatisfying in their current form.

And I would love it if the Amazons were real! I thought the latest archeological evidence showed that they were probably more of a warrior group within a wider society rather than a separate society. I'd heard this discussed in the context of a conference panel on matriarchy (history/social anthropology/archeology) and the conclusion was pretty much 'we would love there to be evidence but there is none, while it doesn't prove those societies didn't exist, it clearly means that for now we have to invent non-patriarchal forms of power relations ourselves'. Also a discussion by three academics on In Our Time seems to say the same:
Looks like I now have to read this book! Thank you Anita, Louise and Madalena for suggesting it.

message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

Thank you, Cam, for that link! I look forward to hear it as I think it's such a fascinating topic that I still can/need to explore further.

Liesl | 513 comments I can`t remember now what recommendation list I came across this book on. I had quite high expectations for it but like many of you I have been disappointed with its lightness. I would have found the book more interesting if it had explored some of the arguments that Beard glosses over during her lectures.

In the first lecture, Beard suggests that we need to go "beyond the simple diagnosis of `misogyny`" in order to "understand – and do something about – the fact that women, even when they are not silenced, still have to pay a very high price for being heard". Ultimately, I found the analysis of Classic literature too superficial to illustrate her point. Later in that lecture she argues that we need to "go back to some first principles about the nature of spoken authority, about what constitutes it, and how we have learned to hear authority where we do". Rather than carry through with this, however, Beard returns to citing examples of women being silenced from Classic literature. Perhaps it would have been more useful to analyse the instances where male rhetoric has proven to be stylistic rather than substantive.

What surprised me in the second lecture was that Beard does not seem to be able to move beyond the male illustration of women in the Classics, even going so far as to label these characters as "unforgettable women" and to describe them as "abusers rather than users of power". They may not always be portrayed as perfect, heroic or saintly people, but the roles of these women in their tales are far from forgettable. These are women that have been taken by force, raped, and abandoned by men driven by power and glory. I believe it would be far more interesting to consider their lives in a retelling from the female perspective rather than just accepting the male view of their situations. Yet Beard does not seem to be very enthusiastic about attempts to do this.

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