The Ladies, The Loudmouths, and The Long Game of Power

Mary Beard's “Women and Power” explores how women's voices have been historically silenced. From Greek myth to modern politics, women in power are considered monstrous or must adopt masculine traits.

The Ladies, The Loudmouths, and The Long Game of Power
The myth of Medusa reveals deep-seated anxieties about female power, anxieties that persist today.
“A woman speaking in public is a woman who has dared to defy.”

That's the word on the street according to Mary Beard, Cambridge professor, famed Classicist, and slayer of online trolls, in her new essay, Women and Power. And if those opening lines sound familiar, Beard assures us that's no coincidence. It's a subtle dig, you see. A jab at the enduring, unspoken rules society still tries to foist upon women who refuse to be silent.

This essay isn't your standard rallying cry about smashing the glass ceiling (though we'll get to that). Instead, Beard takes us on a romp through history and hits the frontlines of current events. Her goal? To expose how our very notions of power remain intrinsically tied to a masculine perspective – and it's not just about the seats of government.

You know how 'important' men speak? The booming voices, the long-winded monologues, the posturing… turns out that's baked into our cultural DNA. Beard digs up the Ancient Greeks and Romans, where the art of public debate was an exclusively male spectacle. Women speaking out were, well, scandalous.

Now, here's the part that matters – this attitude didn't just disappear with our togas. The very idea of a woman with a strong voice and unshakeable opinions still somehow feels…unnatural. Think about it: When Hillary Clinton is called 'shrill', is that about policy or an ingrained aversion to a certain type of woman?

Numbers Don't Crunch the Whole Story

Power isn't just about who has the gavel, it's about whose concerns and views actually shape society. Beard tackles the trend of more women in parliaments and asks some pointed questions:

  • Rwanda has an enviably high percentage of women in Parliament. Amazing, right? But wait – Beard reminds us those positions came on the heels of a horrific civil war. Could this be less about female empowerment and more about power vacuums being filled?
  • Saudi Arabia’s consultative body has a higher female percentage than the US Congress. Should we be cheering or cringing?
  • Do more women in parliaments actually correlate with better outcomes on issues like healthcare or childcare? Or is it just a box-ticking exercise that masks the real problems?

Beard isn't about simple solutions. She wants us squirming a little. The goal is progress, but it has to be the right kind of progress.

Here's where we leave the CEOs and heads of state behind. Because the struggle for power is far more insidious for the average woman. Not about climbing onto stages, but climbing out of cultural ruts designed to muffle us.

Beard zeroes in on how we socialize women towards self-doubt. To question their qualifications, second-guess their ideas, and feel shame about wanting more. She's not just talking about getting a better job (though that's important too!). This is about women who want their voices heard in their community organizations, school boards — the places where the shape of our lives is really negotiated.

Beard's got your call to action, but it's not going to fit on a bumper sticker. It's a call to think harder, laugh a little at the absurdity of it all, and most importantly, refuse to see the “woman with power” as some kind of strange anomaly. She belongs in those rooms. She belongs with a microphone. And maybe sometimes, she belongs throwing a well-placed, witty insult at the old guard who keep forgetting their place.

The Curse of the Silenced Woman

“My mother, go inside the house and take care of your work… Mine, then, is the government of the house.”

With these words, young Telemachus silenced his grieving mother Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey. It was a pivotal moment, captured in ancient words, signaling a long history of female voices being stifled by male authority.

Even now, in contemporary boardrooms, whispers and snickers subtly undermine women: “That’s an excellent proposal, Miss Triggs. Maybe some men here would like to do it.” Ouch. It's a verbal sleight of hand, dismissing a woman's voice before the ink's even dry on her idea.

Mary Beard, in her insightful book Women and Power, takes us back to where it all began – the dusty annals of ancient Greece. In the world of Greek tragedies, we find both stifling silences and surprising defiance.

Queens like Clytemnestra took charge and exercised power, only to be labeled with masculine terms, their femininity questioned. Meanwhile, rebellions like those of Lysistrata and her women, who withheld their bodies to force peace, were ultimately undermined – male actors took on the female roles, a final irony in their victory.

Then, there’s Medusa. Her image of female rage, that petrifying gaze, became twisted. For centuries, a Medusa image – decapitated – has been the brutal choice for satirizing female leaders. May, Merkel, Clinton, Rousseff…their faces contorted and superimposed on Medusa, a far cry from Trump, whose satire-gone-wrong led to a swift firing instead of an enduring symbol.

Beard argues that while our world has come a long way, ancient systems still haunt us. Remember, the word “hysteria” has its root in the Greek word for uterus. When the ancient world labeled eloquent women like Afrania as “barking” and unbearable, it wasn't just annoyance, it was a refusal to give female speech its due credibility.

Our laws have changed, but have our minds? Public speaking, that hallmark of authority, was considered a marker of masculinity. Women were allowed to voice their pain as victims, their defense of family, but rarely to speak on behalf of the community.

Women's voices, when heard by the public, are still often relegated to the “softer” spheres – health, education, equality. While that's shifting, the implicit distrust of a female voice in positions of power remains. Just ask any woman who's ever been talked over in a meeting.

I find myself wondering – does my voice carry the same weight as my male colleagues? Can I command a room, or will invisible doubts and old, dusty prejudices try to shove me back into Penelope's upstairs chambers?

The ghosts of those who sought to silence women through literature, myth, and mockery linger. But now, we have history books and feminist icons and a stubborn will that burns hotter than a Medusa-stare. It's a long battle, but one fought with growing awareness, courage, and the enduring support of women everywhere.

Why Women Shouldn't Change Their Tune to Crack the Glass Ceiling

We've all been there, haven't we ladies? That moment in a meeting where you drop your voice an octave or two, hoping to sound more serious, more authoritative. You might channel your inner Margaret Thatcher, that steely resolve etched into your posture and resonating within your deliberately deepened vocal cords.

And why do we resort to this vocal mimicry? Because at some point, some wise elder likely advised us that if we want to get ahead, we need to “sound like a man.” After all, power has a deep, masculine ring to it, doesn't it?

In her provocative (and let's be honest, rather timely) book, Women and Power (2023), Mary Beard takes us on a historical ride through the vocal gymnastics of successful women. It's a story full of uncomfortable truths, but also simmering with the potential for change.

Beard's book isn't simply about getting women to embrace their high-pitched voices (though there's a liberating thought). She wants us to dig deeper, to question the supposedly masculine nature of authority itself. Why do certain qualities – deep voices, aggressive debating styles – get coded as powerful, while others are shunted to the sidelines as 'weak' or 'emotional'?

This isn't some abstract philosophical debate, ladies. The way we define power shapes who gets to hold it. From boardrooms to parliaments, women have had to contort themselves to fit a mold that was never designed for them. Remember how Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel practically wore pantsuits as their uniform? It was a way to telegraph competence, and perhaps distract from the fact that there was a woman beneath the power suit.

Beard makes us think back to Queen Elizabeth I, the ultimate power player in a very male world. She famously declared, “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.” This wasn't a plea for acceptance; it was a masterful judo move. She took the expected weakness of a woman's body and, with a flourish, transformed it into something fierce and unyielding.

Changing our voices, our clothes, or even our body language is a tiring game. Perhaps it can buy us a seat at the table temporarily, but as Beard argues, it doesn't address the root of the problem. We need to question the very foundation of power. Do confrontation and bravado always win the day, or are there other less showy but equally potent forms of leadership?

Instead of focusing on changing ourselves, Beard wants us to turn the tables. Let's start deconstructing the supposedly masculine model of power. Let's recognize that empathy, collaboration, and quiet determination can be just as effective… maybe even more so.

Imagine a world where women's natural strengths are not just tolerated but actively valued. Where shrewd negotiation skills are celebrated as much as forceful speeches. Think of how much better our workplaces, communities, and heck, even our governments would be if we embraced this broader, more inclusive definition of power.

Power doesn't need to be perfect, and neither do women. Let's dare to be vulnerable, to make mistakes, and learn from them together. Let's convert what the old boys' club might view as feminine “flaws” into new tools in our power arsenal.

In other words, the next time you feel the urge to deepen your voice or adopt that overly-assertive stance, consider pausing. Own your authentic self. Then, turn your focus outwards — let's take a good, critical look at the whole power system and start demanding a better deal. It's time for a new soundtrack, ladies, and it's going to be in our own damn voices.

In-text Citation: (Espinosa Torres, 2024, pp. 10-13)