In Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus returns home after traveling the world and tells his mother Penelope to be quiet and go back to her weaving – because “speech will be the business of men.”
It’s the first recorded example, says classicist Mary Beard, of “a young bloke telling a middle-aged woman to shut up.”
That dismissive remark from nearly 3,000 years ago still echoes, Beard argues, in our less-than-enthusiastic attitudes toward women who speak in public.
In her new book Women & Power: A Manifesto, Beard takes “a long view, a very long view,” on the relationship between “the voice of women and the public sphere of speech-making, debate and comment…”
A classics professor at the University of Cambridge, she identifies the cultural imprint of the ancient world in the way we understand – consciously or unconsciously – the world of debate and public speaking, and how images and ideas from the classical era have burrowed their way into our collective Western consciousness.
From antiquity we’ve inherited the foundations of public speaking that undergird our practices today. Aristotle’s Ars Rhetorica – a sort of field guide to the art of persuasion – is still considered the Bible of persuasive communication.
But in ancient times, women were not allowed to be active in political life. Women did not speak in the Roman Forum, the main venue for public speeches. As Beard notes, a woman who spoke out in public was considered “an abomination.”
Beard draws a line from the classical world to the current underrepresentation of women in the public square.
According to The OpEd Project, women today make up only about 20 percent of voices in public opinion forums – that includes speeches, op-eds, articles, news programs and other platforms for sharing, exploring, and building traction for ideas.
What is the cost to society when women’s voices, ideas and opinions are absent – when so many of our best minds and ideas are left out?
Women who do claim a public voice, says Beard, all too often get harassed, abused, or as she says, “treated as freakish androgynes.”
As well she knows.
Beard has been viciously threatened and trolled online for years. But she’s never backed down – in fact the opposite. She confronts her bullies, even starts a dialogue with them, and on occasion wins them over – at the same time drawing public attention to “social media at its most revolting and misogynistic.”
It’s a pernicious problem that still afflicts women all over the world.
With Women & Power: A Manifesto, Beard takes a deep look into the past – and reveals uncomfortable but potent truths about the present.
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