Sometimes books fall into your hands at the right time, and just last week was one of those occasions. Whilst digesting the news about the apparent extent of sexual harassment in Westminster, I read these two essays by Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, and herself a victim of very public, very abusive social media trolling.
The first essay, written in 2014, ‘ The Public Voice of Women’, illustrates how in the Western world men have been exerting and abusing their power over women, preventing them from fulfilling public roles and therefore of having a public voice, since the early days of Ancient Greece and Rome. Her argument is that this moulding of the female role into that of silent passivity was hard-wired into our patriarchal society, and only after millennia of gradual progress towards equal rights do we find this behaviour less acceptable but still prevalent today.
The second essay ‘Women In Power’ (2017) discusses how our cultural mind set of the image of power is still essentially masculine, and that women wanting to challenge this stereotype, all too often have to mould themselves into that image to be successful. Women in positions of power are still often seen as having achieved something they are not really entitled to, and they still often have a greater challenge to get there. Mary Beard suggests we may not be able to rid ourselves of these outdated attitudes, until we change our concept of what it means to be a woman with power.
Progress towards a more equal society, in which more women are appointed to positions of power, and to job roles previously dominated by men, is generally viewed as a healthy indicator. However to others this progressive equalisation can be threatening and they choose to give vent to their frustration, often through the anonymity of social media, in an explosion of vicious verbal abuse. The aim of such behaviour is an attempt to ‘silence’ these women, to inhibit them from articulating their power in the public domain, even if that is their role. The perpetrators feel more comfortable with the stereotypes of history, rather than a progressive society which can respect individual achievement regardless of gender.
These two short essays present an excellent analysis of ‘why we are where we are’ looking back into history and at current behaviours. It is an enlightening read, and whilst Mary Beard is describing our cultural legacy in its wider historical context, her analysis also helps to explain why we are still discovering so many instances of the abuse of power in our workplaces, which are only now being brought into the critical light of public awareness and wider scrutiny.