Mary Beard is Britain’s best known classicist. Widely admired for her scholarship and popular television programmes about the ancient world, she is also one of this country’s most prominent feminists. By refusing to be cowed by the misogynistic trolls who have abused her on Twitter, she has become a heroine for our times.
In 2018 Beard came to the Intelligence Squared stage to talk about the themes of her No. 1 bestselling book Women and Power: A Manifesto. Examining misogyny’s deep cultural roots, she explored the ways in which women have been excluded from power for thousands of years. Take the decapitated, snake-haired head of Medusa in Greek mythology – seen by Freud as a castrator figure. It has been used recently to demonise Theresa May, Angela Merkel, and in the 2016 presidential campaign Hillary Clinton, who appeared in a meme as Medusa, with Trump holding her severed head aloft. The message? That the ultimate way to silence a woman is to kill her. Beard also highlighted a passage in Homer’s Odyssey, some 3,000 years old, where Penelope’s son tells her to shut up and go back to her spinning and weaving because speech is ‘the business of men.’ Muted women, men as aggressors: the injustices that the #MeToo movement is addressing are millennia old.
So how do we combat misogyny in all its forms? Is the kind of collective action we have seen recently in the Women’s March and #MeToo going to effect the change longed for by so many? Should women who seek political power simply accept the status quo and follow the male template, or do we need a radical rethink of the entire nature of power and spoken authority?
Beard explored these urgent questions, in conversation with lawyer and campaigner Miriam González and radical commentator Laurie Penny, with writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch in the chair.