Friday, March 17, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Mary Beard on "Women in Power"

If you've ever seen a production of the ancient Greek plays with strong and powerful women--Medea, Antigone, and the like--you may have thought, "Wow, how enlightened the Greeks were to feature such strong women in their plays." But it's smarter to see these as cautionary tales about women in power, says classics scholar Mary Beard. Consider them early markers that women are to be culturally excluded from power in ways that we are still fighting today.

Beard addressed women in power in a lecture of the same name two weeks ago in London, putting her knowledge of the ancient cultures and her modern-day focus on women's issues together. Beard's lecture on the public voice of women is an important entry in The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Speeches by Women, and taken together, this pair of lectures is as good a primer as you will find--really, must-reads, both of them--on why women today struggle with finding their voices and claiming their power. The societal barriers to doing so go back centuries, and Beard's the right guide to our unfortunate history. If you think the classics are dull, she's the right guide again--so much so that she was featured in a series of interviews on these Greek heroines on BBC's Woman's Hour radio program in the week prior to the lecture, which was quickly published along with audio and video versions.

For those not sure that ancient Greek women-bashing drama has any impact on women in power today, Beard uses the image of Medusa, whose image--with snakes for her hair--was said to be able to turn people into stone. Medusa was slain by Perseus, who cut off her head and used it to turn his enemies to stone, captured in a famous portrait by Caravaggio. From Beard's lecture:
What’s extraordinary is that this beheading remains even now a cultural symbol of opposition to women’s power. Angela Merkel’s features have again and again been superimposed on Caravaggio’s image. In one of the more silly outbursts in this vein, a column in the magazine of the Police Federation called Theresa May the ‘Medusa of Maidenhead’ during her time as home secretary. ‘The Medusa comparison might be a bit strong,’ the Daily Express responded: ‘We all know that Mrs May has beautifully coiffed hair.’ But May got off lightly compared with Dilma Rousseff, who had to open a major Caravaggio show in São Paolo. The Medusa was naturally in it, and Rousseff standing in front of the very painting proved an irresistible photo opportunity.
But it’s with Hillary Clinton that we see the Medusa theme at its starkest and nastiest. Predictably Trump’s supporters produced a great number of images showing her with snaky locks. But the most horribly memorable of them adapted Cellini’s bronze, a much better fit than the Caravaggio because it wasn’t just a head: it also included the heroic male adversary and killer. All you needed to do was superimpose Trump’s face on that of Perseus, and give Clinton’s features to the severed head.... 
This scene of Perseus-Trump brandishing the dripping, oozing head of Medusa-Clinton was very much part of the everyday, domestic American decorative world: you could buy it on T-shirts and tank tops, on coffee mugs, on laptop sleeves and tote bags (sometimes with the logo TRIUMPH, sometimes TRUMP). It may take a moment or two to take in that normalisation of gendered violence, but if you were ever doubtful about the extent to which the exclusion of women from power is culturally embedded or unsure of the continued strength of classical ways of formulating and justifying it – well, I give you Trump and Clinton, Perseus and Medusa, and rest my case.
Beard also goes on to say that our ideas of power are the kinds of power that elites can claim, but that every woman--not just those trying to run for prime minister or president--needs and wants some form of power. But how should women view her insights? She says:
...the big issues I’ve been trying to confront aren’t solved by tips on how to exploit the status quo. And I don’t think patience is likely to be the answer either, though gradual change very likely will take place. In fact, given that women in this country have only had the vote for a hundred years, we shouldn’t forget to congratulate ourselves for the revolution that we have all, women and men, brought about. That said, if the deep cultural structures legitimating women’s exclusion are as I have argued, gradualism is likely to take too long for me, thank you very much. We have to be more reflective about what power is, what it is for, and how it is measured. To put it another way, if women aren’t perceived to be fully within the structures of power, isn’t it power that we need to redefine rather than women?
What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • It's smart to remind us of our history: Beard's research lies completely in the past, although she certainly keeps a weather eye on trends in the present that hark back to historic days. Sometimes, your speech or presentation will benefit from a similar comparison, whether it's to remind the audience how far we've come, or, as here, how much further we have to go.
  • Tell us a story from your viewpoint: History repeats itself, but if you weren't around in the era of ancient Greece, you might not see the comparison. So Beard retells the old tales and brings them into our world with the images online and on tote bags. How can you retell a story from your viewpoint?
  • Speak plainly: Beard does not shy from her topic. The misogyny is clearly and unflinchingly described, and in doing so, she lets us see it. No sugar-coating, muffling, or euphemizing here. Instead, there's brilliant clarity, just what every audience wants.
You can watch the video here or below, and the full text of the lecture is here.

LRB · Mary Beard · Video: Women in Power

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