Noted classicist and essayist Beard (S.P.Q.R.: A History of Ancient Rome, 2015, etc.) looks deep into the past and hard at the present to examine the power of women—and more often, their powerlessness—in a world of impatient men.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren was far from the first woman to be silenced, publicly, by a man who did not want to hear what she had to say. As the author chronicles in the first of two lectures in this slim but potent volume, Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, hushed his mother, Penelope, saying, “speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all.” Penelope retreats to her quarters, although in fact she does have something important to say. Women who managed to make themselves heard in the ancient world usually did so with asterisks attached, as when Maesia, who defended herself in a Roman court, was successful because, a contemporary recorded, “she really had a man’s nature behind the appearance of a woman.” The classical inheritance has provided a template that holds to this day—and when not silenced, women are threatened and trolled, as Beard is every time she writes an essay for nonacademic readers. Silence links to power or the lack thereof; in this regard, argues the author, women do not recognize their achievements and the possibilities of self-governance—or, perhaps more to the point, “have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man.” In closing her provocative, thoughtful, and elegantly but lightly worn literary argument, Beard observes that were she writing her lectures afresh, she would “find more space to defend women’s right to be wrong,” since they have to be unimpeachably correct in order to be taken seriously—if then.
An urgent feminist cri de coeur, spot-on in its utterly reasonable plea that a woman “who dares to open her mouth in public” actually be given a hearing.