Mary Beard’s Manifesto

This past week, I had a little talk with myself about work and play.  I told myself that I needed to impose real playtime on the weekend, to be more deliberate about not using few and precious free hours simply to do more work.  This is the kind of stern talking-to we all practice from time to time.  For me, the results are variable at best.

In the free hour I had last Saturday afternoon, I marched myself to my little comfy office in our house, sat down as a big gesture into the comfy chair, sipped luxuriously at a late cup of coffee, and opened a novel, one that I thought would be light but not too light, enjoyable for a little afternoon literary siesta.  With many friends and colleagues at women’s marches around the world, I second-guessed my decision to have a much-needed day at home after the previous week’s inaugurations and parades, but I tried to stick to this deliberate approach to free time.

Well, it seems I don’t read “light” too well anymore.  Sure, I can still watch a soap opera and other junk on television and Netflix.  I can even re-watch this stuff.  But the reading I do seems almost sacred these days—you know, so much to read, so little time—that I allow myself to move on quickly if “light” means “fluffy and annoying, treacly and a waste of time.”  When our son was little, he could sit in our laps being read to for stretches of two hours or more.  He could never get enough of hearing the stories, seeing the illustrations, and putting it all together.  Our daughter at that age would sit in our laps, listen to one or two books for a few minutes, make a quick judgment, snap the book shut herself, and announce abruptly, “The End.”  During my first 50 years I was more the two-hour (really, much more) stretch type, but now I’m noticing a healthy dose of “The End” creeping in.  I read three chapters of the novel, closed it with one heavy-handed palm, and reached instead for Mary Beard’s recently published Women & Power. A Manifesto (Liveright, 2017).

I had bought the book for myself back in December, and my husband had also given a copy to me as a gift. I had to read at least one of the copies, didn’t I?  The next hour or two in the comfy chair ticked by very quickly as I absorbed Beard’s brilliant tome—part Greco-Roman cultural history of gender, part UK and USA current events steeped in race and gender, part let’s-stop-putting-up-with-bullshit manifesto.  Based on two different London Review of Books lecture series offered by Beard, the first in 2014 and the second in 2017, Women & Power has two sections: “The Public Voice of Women” and “Women in Power.”  Beard’s style is at once erudite and colloquial, dazzling with her deep knowledge while inviting in readers who might be less educated on gender and its intersections.  She acknowledges how and when her feminism is intersectional and is clear on when it is not.

Here’s a sample of Beard’s deep knowledge as it erupts in broad manifesto:  “An enormous amount of modern feminist energy has been wasted on trying to prove that these Amazons did once exist, with all the seductive possibilities of a historical society that really was ruled by and for women.  Dream on.  The hard truth is that the Amazons were a Greek male myth.  The basic message was that the only good Amazon was a dead one, or—to go back to awful Terry—one that had been mastered, in the bedroom.  The underlying point was that it was the duty of men to save civilisation from the rule of women” (62).  Basically, as many of us felt after seeing the newest “Wonder Woman” movie, powerful women are still often created through the male gaze, and they’re still somehow hell-bent on war and destruction.  I highly recommend this blog post by Edurne Portela for an examination of #MeToo, women’s physical power, and the mockery of demonstrations of women’s physical power that is supposed to serve to put the woman out of place (physically defending herself; lashing out; jumping into the fray to help a friend) back in her place.

A few pages after Beard’s analysis of the Greek myth of the Amazon women, the author establishes Medusa as “one of the most potent ancient symbols of male mastery over the destructive dangers that the very possibility of female power represented.  It is no accident that we find her decapitated—her head proudly paraded as an accessory by this decidedly un-female female deity” (71).  Beard here is speaking of Athena, who wore the image of Medusa on her breastplate.  The illustrations Beard includes (77) of three world leaders depicted and decapitated in the head of Medusa are powerful.  Who are these world leaders?  Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), Angela Merkel (Germany), and Hillary Clinton (USA).  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on the very real trope of “Lock Her Up,” applied to several world leaders.)  The message?  Take heed, women out there who might consider running for office.  There is a price to pay, and that is your own head.

Beard’s manifesto is the whole work, of course, but several important lessons to be learned include (1) we need to know and understand our raced and gendered history and culture; (2) without changing actual structures of power, people of color and women will continue to be accused and decapitated; (3) we need to “decouple power from public prestige,” thinking of it as “an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession” (87); (4) we must recognize everyone’s “ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually” (87).  Beard concludes the section by reminding us that the innovative founders of Black Lives Matter are all women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.

I have also just read Acting White? Rethinking Race in “Post-Racial” America, by Devon W. Carbado and Mitu Gulati.  My university’s Mudd Center for Ethics is sponsoring a visit by Professor Carbado this week.  The book’s focus on cultural history of race in the United States and the resultant ways in which individuals and groups can feel they have to perform a certain perception of race is much-needed and very compelling.  What the authors call “Working Identity” (the performance impositions of our everyday lives) is a key concept, and the authors assert that such performance requires “time, effort, and energy” (3).  Indeed.  For individuals and groups in and on the intersections of race and gender, race and gender identity, and race and other “performable” categories, the time, effort, and energy required consistently drain the body, mind, and soul.

It appears I have again converted leisure into work, but what a privilege to be able to do so.  Consider reading Beard, Portela, and Carbado & Gulati!  They will make for a fine weekend.

(Tune in next week for an examination of a Pennsylvania congressman who used taxpayer funds to settle his own sexual harassment case and a Vatican Pope who again doubts the veracity of claims made by people who have been sexually abused by priests and bishops.)