One of my favourite historians is the Cambridge Classics scholar Professor Dame Mary Beard. An older woman who became more publicly visible through representing television programmes, she has experienced the full brunt of what can happen when an older woman will not go ‘quietly into the night’. In her book ‘Women & Power: A Manifesto,’ she charts the silencing of women, with whom she claims, ‘western culture has had thousands of years of practice’. Her book provides a short, sharp analysis of women in the West and their ongoing struggles for a voice in the public domain. She includes examples from antiquity to illustrate the social and gender dynamics inherited in the West and she traces the long heritage of women being told to be quiet.
Beard’s first example is Penelope. A main character in Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope is the faithful wife of the epic’s eponymous hero Odysseus. A hero of the Trojan War, Odysseus spends 10 years at Troy and then another 10 years trying to return to his home in Ithaca, where Penelope and their adolescent son Telemachus wait. In a scene from Odyssey Book One, Penelope enters the communal space of her husband’s palace and complains about a song that is being performed by one of the entertainers. Telemachus immediately orders her to return to her chambers and resume women’s work. He further reproaches her that stories are the preserve of men. Men engage in public discourse. Women face exclusion from it.
The message is clear. As Professor Beard observes, “right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere”. On Telemachus telling his mum to “zip it”, Professor Beard points out that “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”. It may seem incredible that some 2,500 years since the Homeric epics, women are still silenced in public. But the myths of Archaic Greece continue to maintain relevance to modern reality. Even when women occupy a public platform, they are regularly met with verbal and written ripostes.
Professor Beard’s primary subject is female silence; she hopes to take a “long view on the culturally awkward relationship between the voice of women and the public sphere of speech-making, debate and comment”, the better to get beyond “the simple diagnosis of misogyny that we tend a bit lazily to fall back on”. Calling out misogyny isn’t, she understands, the same thing as explaining it, and it’s only by doing the latter that we’re likely ever to find an effective means of combating it.
What I relish about Professor Mary Beard’s approach is that she doesn’t simply sink down into disapproval and hand-wringing. She wants to know: how can women be heard? And her answers are radical. Why should we settle only for exploiting the status quo – for instance, by training our voices, as Margaret Thatcher did? Progress, if it is ever to happen, will require a fundamental rethink of the nature of spoken authority, and what constitutes it, and how we have learned to hear it where we do. Women are not only going to have to be “resituated” on the inside of power; it may be that power itself has to be redefined. What will such a redefinition involve? She talks of the “decoupling” of power from prestige, a bifurcation that will mean thinking about power as an attribute rather than as a possession, ‘to power’, instead of ‘holding power’.
The reasons behind the absence of women’s voices throughout much of history is complex, and levelling blame at the patriarchy is often unhelpful. However, this week when we celebrate International Women’s Day, we can seek to make sure that those who have wielded power and influence in the past are remembered, and that their contributions are properly acknowledged and accredited. In addition, we can look ahead to provide opportunities for those whose voices remain unheard, so that they may not be held back. Professor Mary Beard reminds us that women need to claim the public space and speak.
It has been said that we have focused too much on history and it should be rebalanced with a little more of herstory. But one of the things that has held many women back has been the lack of opportunities for education. This continues to be the case in many parts of the world and was brought to our attention by Malala Yousafzai who nearly paid with her life in pursuit of her education. Malala now uses the power of that education to campaign for the empowerment of girls around the world.
‘I raise up my voice – not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard… we cannot succeed when half of us are held back’ – Malala Yousafzai
Women have wielded and continue to wield influence and power and this week at school we will draw attention to those from whom we can learn and be inspired. In doing so, it is hoped that more voices will be heard which will benefit humanity as a whole. By celebrating International Women’s Day, we honour the strength, courage and resilience of women who have fought for their rights and freedoms. We also acknowledge the work that still needs to be done to achieve gender equality and promote women’s empowerment. It serves as a timely reminder that women still have to fight hard to have their voices heard in the corridors of power.
By coming together, raising our voices and embracing equity, we can make a difference in the lives of women around the world. Equally, we know how hard we must work to stay ahead and provide the broad, academic, forward-thinking education we are known for at Northampton High, supporting girls’ needs and preparing them for their futures by enabling them to construct their own narratives.
Beard, M (2018) Women & Power: A Manifesto, Profile Books Ltd