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Surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?”
We read Mary Beard’s Women and Power: A Manifesto in advance of the release of the paperback edition and we had a LOT of thoughts.
Any modern feminist will know – just know – that the little injustices she sees and lives everyday are nothing new. That they are rooted in years and years of gendered oppression. But never before have I read a text which so perfectly – and so succinctly – weaves our experience of misogyny in the age of twitter trolls and #metoo into the fabric of a history spanning the entirety of recorded – western – human experience.
The most striking part of the manifesto, for me, was not the facts Beard lays out, but the fictions, the questions. She doesn’t accept recorded history at face value, and she encourages us not to either. Who wrote this history? And who did they write it for? My main takeaway from Women and Power is not that it told me anything about the status of women that I found especially revealing, but that it re-shaped how I view history: less objective fact, more a bedtime story we’re passing onto our children that teaches them to uphold existing power structures – whether we like it or not.
At first, it may seem low-brow to compare formative texts of western literature with social media bullying and meme culture, but this is where Beard’s unique identities as both a Cambridge University lecturer and a regular TV personality who is well-versed in fending off twitter trolls come together so brilliantly.
She traces the silencing of women from the character Io being turned into a cow (to effectively shut her up once and for all) in Greek Mythology, to Henry James writing of the “polluting, contagious, and socially destructive effect of women’s voices” in the late 19th Century, to the way women in positions of power are taught to mimic the tones and mannerisms of men to make it to the top. It calls to mind the discussion of the (usually American) female vocal ‘fry’ which is such a popular topic among podcast hosts. Vocal fry is dropping your voice to a low register, often at the end of words or sentences, in a way that makes your voice sound ‘creaky’ or ‘croaky.’ Female podcasters are frequently accused of using vocal fry, of possessing annoying verbal tics, or having annoying voices full stop, by listeners who seem to fail to realise they are not actually being forced to listen to them.
The main question I have after devouring the book in one sitting and returning to it to scribble in the margins every day since then, is whether we will ever have a model of woman+hood that is removed from maleness. Either we are seen to be defining ourselves against maleness or aping it. Either weaponising femininity or rejecting femininity. Is there no understanding of femininity without masculinity?
This is not a criticism of Beard’s manifesto (though I think it less of a manifesto and more of a necessary re-examination of accepted historical ‘facts’). Beard’s history is not unbiased but it leaves room for the reader to draw their own conclusions. In Beard’s hands, an examination of Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton greeting one another in matching trouser-suits is not sexist tabloid fodder but an example of the near-inevitable outcome of a culture which has taught us to think of power as solely the domain of masculinity. She does not judge either politician, she just leaves the evidence on the table for us to pick over ourselves.
Women must aspire to a certain level of masculinity before certain doors will open for her yet, once there, she will be mocked for doing femininity wrong. “Women who claim a public voice get treated as freakish androgynes” – quotes such as this could be about any moment in history, any literary or political figure. Beard is clear: we’ve come far, but not far enough.
I want my fishnet tights and my baggy, unfitted shirts both to be removed from the discussion of power. But, by wearing one, I’m ostensibly choosing to embrace a femininity that I played no part in defining, one which has been used to oppress and objectify me. By wearing the other, I’m implicitly rejecting femininity and, by association, femaleness. I am, to paraphrase Beard, ‘aping’ maleness.
There is no space made by Beard in her manifesto for a discussion on gender expression more explicitly; androgyny is never discussed as a characteristic that might be in anyway desirable or useful. Maybe it’s a uniquely millennial ‘affliction’ to expect recognition of intersectional identities in every self-identifying feminist text. The book certainly benefits in many ways from being as concise as it is. But if Beard recognises the culturally conditioned dichotomy of femininity vs masculinity – of timbre of voice, of body language, of fashion, how does gender expression as we know and discuss it today (very much cognisant of trans* identities), fit into the misogynistic traditions we have inherited from the ancient world? Can we ever separate red lipstick from the male gaze, or a trouser-suit from connotations of masculinity itself? Can androgyny never be merely sartorial/expressive? Can a woman ever be in a position of power without necessarily suffering comparisons to men and maleness?
We can say it all started with the Romans and their definition of masculinity as ‘skilled in speaking’; or with the Greeks and their writers’ relentless and brutal silencing of women. But neither story changes the fact that women are – necessarily, unavoidably, objectively – inheriting a world in which they have always been without power. In which red lipstick connotes femininity and femininity connotes subservience; in which trouser suits connote masculinity and a woman in a trouser suit is seen to be rejecting femininity to be granted access to the ‘man’s world’. We can talk about whether feminists wear pink (they do) and whether men can wear skirts (they can) but the point is that we will have to continue having these conversations until masculinity and femininity are no longer seen as symbols of those who have power and those who do not. Until power itself changes.
Mary Beard’s Women and Power: A Manifesto is out now in paperback. Special thanks to Profile Books for sending us an advanced copy of the paperback edition.
Want to get your hands on a copy? Why not enter our competition over on Instagram @im_ohne to win copies for you and a friend of both Mary Beard’s Women and Power and Little Black Book by Otegha Uwagba!
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