Professor Mary Beard’s latest book Women & Power: A Manifesto is a short, sharp analysis of women in the West and their ongoing struggles for a voice in the public domain. Based on two lectures delivered in 2014 and 2017, Beard chronicles some of the major obstacles women continue to face, framing her analysis through the lens of the legacies of ancient Greece and Rome.
In her first essay, Beard provides some examples from antiquity to illustrate the social and gender dynamics inherited in the West. In short, she traces the long heritage of women being told to shut up.
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 (read male) 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 reminds her that stories are the preserve of men. Men engage in public discourse. Women face exclusion from it.
This is not the only example of silencing women in the Homeric epics. In Book One of the Iliad, thought to be composed at least a generation earlier than the Odyssey, Zeus is confronted by his wife Hera who challenges him on a matter concerning the course of the Trojan War. In an assertion of his divine authority, Zeus demands Hera’s silence and threatens her with violence if she persists in opposing him.
Read more: Guide to the Classics: Homer's Odyssey
In both instances, the message is clear. As 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”, 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.
We’re still being silenced
In 2017, Tony Abbott told Ray Hadley on 2GB that Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins should “pull her head in” after her organisation recommended that Commonwealth Government contractors aim for at least 40% of female employees as part of a strategy to address workplace gender imbalance.
“Pull your head in” means, essentially, shut up and mind your own business. Abbott’s reprimand mirrors Telemachus’ command to Penelope to pull her head in and retreat to the private (female) sphere.
In Scotland, meanwhile, in 2016, then UK Independence Party leadership candidate, Raheem Kassam, tweeted about the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon: ‘Can someone just, like … tape Nicola Sturgeon’s mouth shut? And her legs, so she can’t reproduce’.
In Canada, in the same year, MP Michelle Rempel described how a male parliamentary colleague had once asked that she refrain from speaking until she was “less emotional”.
Beard also recounts the myths of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, including the tales of Io “turned by the god Jupiter into a cow, so she can cannot talk but only moo”, “the chatty nymph” Echo “punished so that her voice is never her own, merely an instrument for repeating the words of others” and Philomela, who is raped and silenced by her violator, who cuts out her tongue after she tries to scream out the crime.
These may seem like frivolous tales of make-believe. But like all myths, legends and fairy tales, they contain subtle layers of meaning both for the ancients who invented them and for those today who experience their content in new forms.
Beard, no stranger to virtual threats similar to those meted out to Philomela, has opened a public space for women to name and to challenge their silencing. By detailing examples from the past to illuminate the present, she has shown us how far women in the West have come. But compellingly, she has also shown us how close we are at times to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Women & Power’s most important contribution to the current advances and failures of feminism in the West is its encouragement of contemplation and understanding. To reflect on the silencing of women addresses urgent feminist issues of the 21st century, including the low number of cases of domestic violence, sexual harassment and assault that are reported to authorities, the opposition to the public voice of the #MeToo movement and the vileness of trolling.
Beard reminds us that women need to claim the public space and speak. To scream, yell and rewrite the script we have been assigned to deliver since the mythical age of Penelope.