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How the long history of not being taken seriously affects women in power today

The way women operate today in the public sphere is not too different from how they did in the literature of Homer or the Middle Ages, says Mary Beard, a leading feminist and expert in ancient history. Beard joins Jeffrey Brown for a conversation on women in politics and her latest book, "Women and Power: A Manifesto," an exploration into how women's voices have been historically silenced.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But, first, let’s close out our book conversations for 2017 with a new release that highlights one of the hot-button issues of this year: women’s voices in the public square, and how they have been historically silenced or maligned.

    Jeffrey Brown caught up with a leading feminist about her latest work, in our final addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf this year.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In book one of Homer’s Odyssey, as the hero’s wife, Penelope, and son Telemachus await his return, she speaks in a public area of their palace. But her son stops her. Speech, he says, is men’s business.

  • Mary Beard:

    It’s the very first moment in Western culture when some young boy has told a woman, in this case his mom, to shut up. And there’s a long history ever after.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University, an expert of ancient history who’s also an acute and provocative commentator on our own times. In Britain, Beard is that rarity, a celebrity scholar, a regular on television and radio, known for speaking out on news and online outlets, including her blog, A Don’s Life.

    In this country, her 2015 history of ancient Rome, “SPQR,” was a New York Times bestseller. Beard’s new book, based on two public lectures she gave, explores an abiding theme in her scholarly and public work, and again connects ancient history to today. It’s called “Women & Power – A Manifesto.”

    We spoke recently in New York.

  • Mary Beard:

    I’m exploring the long history of women, first of all, being silenced, and, secondly, not being taken seriously in the political and public sphere. It’s a call to action through understanding, and through looking at ourselves again, and trying to reformulate the whole question of women and power.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, you’re focusing on the public voice, or the lack of it, for women. But why is the public voice a way in to understanding power?

  • Mary Beard:

    Because I think politics is still very, very much determined by what we hear and how we see debate, rather than what we read.

    So, if you look at the way public commentators describe and talk about the voices of the women politicians that they hear, you instantly see how gendered it is. You know, there she is, she’s whining again, she’s squawking, she’s whingeing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You’re making a case, though, going back through time that this is a voice that is systematically denied, right?

  • Mary Beard:

    I don’t think that we are completely dominated by what we have inherited from the past, but it is the case that, as far back as you can go, just to Homer, but also to the literature of Rome, the literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, what you will find is that women’s voices are not taken seriously.

    And you can still see in the way that modern female politicians operate that they somehow take that on board. They have regulation trouser suits. They kind of play up to being a man.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Trouser Suits. And you have — there’s a picture in the book of Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton.

  • Mary Beard:

    Wearing identical clothes, trouser suits, obviously very practical, many reasons to do it. But, actually, what it succeeds in doing is making them look like men in suits.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Today’s public square includes the digital world, of course. Beard is active on Twitter, writing on a variety of issues. And while regularly attacked, even viciously at times, she doesn’t back down.

  • Mary Beard:

    If you look carefully, it’s a pretty grim read, but if you look carefully at what these Twitter abusers are saying, they’re saying things like, I’m going to cut your tongue out. I’m going to cut your head off and rape it.

    Now, what that’s doing…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You have heard — you have had these things written about you?

  • Mary Beard:

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

    And what they’re saying is, I want you to shut up. They’re not saying, I don’t happen to agree with you on your view of Brexit. They’re saying shut up.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

    Are you saying that things have not improved for women?

  • Mary Beard:

    I’m not saying they have not improved. Happily, they have improved. My mom was born before women had the vote in general elections in England. Things have got better.

    But, somehow, what’s going on in our heads about how we think about power has not changed as much as we’d like to think. I think that what will help women get into positions of power, well, day nurseries, equal pay, family-friendly working hours.

    And I think all that’s important. I used to think it was the solution. I now think it’s enabling and it’s important, but still we have got head work to do about this.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What does that mean?

  • Mary Beard:

    We have got ways of thinking about how power operates, which, you know, are very deeply buried in our cultural inheritance. I don’t think they’re inescapable, but that they’re very deeply buried.

    That really means we have to re-look at what we think about women and men and power, and what we think power is.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In her book, Beard cites women taking on new kinds of powerful roles, including the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement.

    Written before the Harvey Weinstein allegations became public, it arrives amid almost daily airings of new sexual harassment cases. But Beard says it’s too early to tell how much change will come.

  • Mary Beard:

    I’m worried that, in fact, we will look back to this and it will be seen as a slightly cathartic flash in the pan, and then everything will go on.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You’re worried about that? You think that could happen?

  • Mary Beard:

    Yes, I think it’s too early to say. I hope that isn’t what happens.

    I would also like to think that these issues spread wider, because, certainly in the U.K., and it may not be the same here, but I suspect that it is, we, certainly in the press, have been very focused on kind of celebrity culture.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

    I’m wondering, though, as someone who takes the long view, and you still see it today, why would there be any reason to hope that things could change?

  • Mary Beard:

    Well…

    (LAUGHTER)

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    … tell us that.

  • Mary Beard:

    I’m a social optimist, I suppose.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Social optimist?

  • Mary Beard:

    Yes, I’m a social and cultural optimist.

    I think it will take longer for it to change than we imagine. We can change things. But, A, we need to know what it is we’re changing, and we need to be determined to change it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, the book is “Women & Power: A Manifesto”:

    Mary Beard, thank you very much.

  • Mary Beard:

    Thank you.

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