I spent odd moments this weekend reading Mary Beard’s slight Women and Power, 107 pages chronicling the misogynists of classical literature and culture and an awkward attempt to correlate today’s dislike of women like Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel to the male dislike of the woman’s voice, and male hatred for women in power. Beard is famous for her presentations of classical history on the BBC, and for the companion books, Pompeii and Rome. And for being a proud aging woman with long grey hair and no make-up on prime time television. This last has made her a hero to women and the locus of an impressive amount of hatred from the less evolved, much of it having to do with her vagina. Now considered a folk hero for fighting back – she took her most vicious hater out to lunch, tamed him and wrote him a job recommendation – Beard is surprised, surprised! by the hate out there.
She is right about the hatred directed at women in the public sphere who advance ideas which are prescriptive. Right or left, the hate is personal, sometimes frightening and very often, disgusting. Equally, one’s opponents lie and mischaracterize your ideas and associations and say horrible things about your appearance. This is true for men and more so for women, but men shake it off. They are used to fierce competition in the workplace, and in the world of ideas. For women, because they are hard-wired to the vulnerable, it is earth-shaking, and ferociously hard.
Beard’s solution is to have more women in positions of power. Again yes, with a caveat. Beard wants to change the face of power and have it be more inclusive of ordinary men and especially, women. How this is to be achieved is left to others as are all policy prescriptions founded in emotion.
This is the point of this somewhat dangerous age we find ourselves enduring. It is in fact, the crux of it and the reason for the hate directed at Beard. We cannot legislate against hate. That immediately becomes the major tool of the oppressor, to silence opposing ideas. And, in the realm of women’s freedom, it is not necessary. The advances of women in my lifetime alone are stunning, there are no doors left unopened, no ceiling left uncracked. Affirmative action is the de facto rule in almost every profession and industry I’ve encountered. Almost every western democracy has had a woman leader, and frankly, sex and race are not and should never be a qualification for the most powerful job in the world.
At this juncture, our responsibility as women is to grow into our new roles. I grew up reading fiction (Edith Wharton springs to mind, Emma Bovary another) wherein women who left the traditional course or were ambitious in unseemly ways, ended up dead or disgraced. Quite a different story today. Women’s popular fiction is filled with bad-ass gals, many of whom are alcoholics, who solve mysteries and conquer or women under deep threat from serial killers who are their husbands, who conquer and save their children as well. The voice in today’s fiction is deeply personal, deeply concerned with every fibrillation of its psyche, honoring every perception, intuition, every feeling. This is fascinating for one reason: women, as a class, are individuating. We are moving away from the collectivization that marked the lives of women for the last 5000 years. To follow Beard’s prescriptions, would send us straight back to the herd, mooing along in concert, under the spell of the overlord who tells us the right pretty stories about ourselves.