Mary Beard has written a powerful and beautiful book. A book that you can carry in your bag, read it and then re-read it, and read it once more (I have already read it twice).

We live in an era that women, around the world, have more power than ever before.  But women are less represented in the sectors and positions with the most power – men still dominate decision-making and our cultural and mental template for a powerful person remains absolutely male.

If we close our eyes and try to conjure up the image of a president or – to move into the knowledge economy – a professor, what most of us see is not a woman. And that is just as true even if you are a woman professor.: the cultural stereotype is so strong that, at the level of those close-your-eyes fantasies, it is still hard for me to imagine me, or someone like me, in my role.

Mary Beard

Mary Beard’s subject is the ways women get silenced in public discourse. From Ancient Greece to Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton. From Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, 3000 year ago, when Telemachus effectively told her to “shut up” to Senator Elizabeth Warren which, on February 2017, was silenced for reading at the Senate, a 30-year-old letter written by Coretta Scott King criticizing attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions.[1]  But Senate Republicans notably didn’t object when Sanders and three other male senators[2] —— later read portions of the same letter on the Senate floor.

But the book is not only about women in the highest echelons of power in international politics. It is about all of us, all women that work and participate in public life. Women that are often subject to sexism and prejudice. Yes, there is misogyny, and misogyny is a good place to start in understanding the general phenomenon, but what is going on today is a bit more complicated.  It has to do with authority, male authority to be precise.

Women pay a very high price for being heard. Many women, including Mary Beard, have been the targets of misogynistic abuse via social media. Such hateful and hostile reactions are frequently directed at women who challenge men’s power and authority and they are liable to be written off as nasty, greedy, selfish and domineering.  Misogyny and abuse are corrosive of women’s participation in public life, but this is something entirely different, it is about demeaning, trivialising, even threatening, it is an enforced silencing of women.

But the more I have looked at the threats and insults that women have received, the more they seem to fit into the old patterns that I have talking about. For a start it doesn’t matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It is not what you say that prompts it, it is simply the fact that you are saying it.

Mary Beard

Medusa has been used for centuries to criticize powerful women. In Western culture, strong women have historically been imagined as threats that need to be controlled and, for centuries, Medusa, a symbol of seduction and power, feminist and castration threat, has been used to criticise and demonize female authority. It is no surprise then, that Medusa has cropped up repeatedly to depict influential female figures as the mythological snake-haired monster.  A few minutes on google search shows that it is a trend, to photoshop women in power as Medusas. Nancy Pelosi, Angela Merkel, Teresa May, Hillary Clinton, all are presented with snaky hair.

At the end of the 19th Susan B. Anthony identified the lack of women on newspapers,

“If the men own the paper- that is, if the men control the management of the paper- then the women who write for these papers must echo the sentiment of these men. And if they do not do that, their heads are cut off.”

Susan B. Anthony

But this is the 21st century. We have been silenced for too long. Not anymore.


[1] In it, King had argued that as a federal prosecutor, Sessions had used his power to “chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.” McConnell stood by his accusation that Warren had violated Rule 19, a rarely evoked chamber regulation that prohibits senators from insulting each other on the Senate floor. “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” #ShePersisted immediately a battle cry and a hashtag used by liberals and feminists to support Elizabeth Warren.

[2] New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley