Feminist Readings: 'Women and Power: A Manifesto' and the relation between Classics and modern-day mansplaining.
Mary Beard's two part essay 'Women and Power: A Manifesto' interlinks the patriarchal issues of the 21st century; including the 2016 US election, in which an intensely contradictory man accused of sexual assault became president through the use of Twitter. over a woman with a far greater history of political experience; to the Classical histories and literatures carrying the ideas of male oration as more 'superior' or 'powerful' to a woman's voice.
During my first year at university studying World Literature, I took an immersive, multinational course aptly named 'The Tale', illustrating fairy, folk and modern short tales and stories incorporating most nations on a cohesive timeline: From The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest text on earth from Ancient Mesopotamia, to the more recent short tales of Borges and Angela Carter. One tale struck me in particular, from within Ovid's collection of tales Metamorphoses, about Philomela's tragedy. Her sister, Procne, was married to King Tereus, who kidnaps and brutally rapes Philomela, then cuts out her tongue to silence her. Quite literally cutting out her tongue - removing her right of speech, right of opinion and the right to protect herself. She eventually uses her intuition and talent as a seamstress to sew the scene of her rape onto a tapestry, which she sends to her sister. This imagery really stuck with me, particularly when applied with how men deal with me and my female counterparts today. I'm not suggesting here that the 21st century male is so entitled as to cut out any female tongue he can hear, however the systematic interruption, speaking over, ignoring and degrading of women's opinions is still a constant in women's lives; whether at the pub, in an office or in a political election.
Mary Beard addresses this myth within the first chapter of her essay Women and Power: A Manifesto (2017), focusing on the role of gender and oration from the ancient eras and how this has continued through to today. The problem is, is that there are still men like King Tereus today, albeit more subtle than ripping out a tongue. Beard discusses the role of Twitter and other forms of social media today and how it was originally supposed to expand ideas and inclusivity, ideally so that everyone and anyone can have a voice. However, men from both experienced journalistic backgrounds and random internet trolls have been continually sexist to any form of public speech Beard and other intelligent women have attempted; in a mainstream British magazine she was described as 'whining' about her comments on misogyny (30) . On Twitter, some of the more consistent sexisms Beard witnessed and experienced, are to be told to 'shut up you bitch', called a 'headlessfemalepig' and, almost in some Classical irony, a woman was told by an American reporter: 'You should have your tongue ripped out'. (37) And we wonder today why woman are afraid or have simply given up speaking their truths when there is this toxic, male environment that shuts down and belittles the female voice so constantly.
Beard also relates these ideas of modern 'mansplaining' to the story of Penelope from Homer's The Odyssey, where her husband Odysseus leaves on a voyage, and, expected not to return alive, a constant thread of suitors remains in or around her household waiting for her to chose a new husband. When they ask her who she will chose, instead of answering or declining or having any say at all, she is told by her young son Telemachus to leave to her room and to leave this issue with the men. She is done as she is told. In Ancient Greek traditions, Beard explains, a boy's speech and skills in oration are the quality elements that make him 'a man'. It gives him power, it gives him skill and it gives him opinions that matter. Versus the only oration women were allowed, which was 'to defend their homes, their children, their husbands or the interests of other women' (16) besides these few exceptions, 'a woman speaking in public, was [...] by definition not a woman' (17). This interlinks with the second part to Beard's essay, Women in Power, in which she looks at the dichotomy of women already in power in the 21st century and how they must appear, sound like and act like a man in order to achieve any level of power comparable to that of a "powerful man". Through my own experience as a British citizen under Theresa May, living with my parents who witnessed Margaret Thatcher's leadership and living in Germany currently lead by Angela Merkel, I have seen references and derogatory statements directed at these women that are specifically female-orientated, no matter what their policies or leadership skills actually consist of. Their successes are successful when they dress in suits, act 'manly' or speak deeper like a man (Thatcher received oratory lessons to learn how to speak deeper). Yet, their failures are because of their feminine attributes, again, because they are 'whining', and as Beard aptly mentions when women appear more feminine, their image and looks are instantly critiqued instead of their speech.
So... what's the solution to all this? Beard doesn't come up with a direct solution but her point resonates: 'You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure' (87). Like Philomela, who evidently wasn't allowed to speak out in a conventional way under a harsh patriarchal system, she still found power and freedom through her sewing, which eventually saved her. Thatcher, as Beard references, through her various handbag choices, made 'the most stereotypically female accessory became a verb of political power: as in "to handbag"' (81). Handbags and sewing: two very stereotypical 'feminine' things that reversed the power structures in these situations. In other words, instead of looking at a woman and relating her 'manly' characteristics as the direct sources of power, we need to change the structure to accommodate strong, feminine symbols into what we know as 'power' today.