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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, December 27, 2017 1:00 am

Womanifesto remains short on solutions

Reviewed By Elaine Showalter

In the two essays that make up her new book, Mary Beard shows first how women have been silenced in public life as far back as the Greeks and the Romans and, second, how ancient images of female monstrosity from Clytemnestra to Medusa have been endlessly recycled to undermine women's access to political power.

In the classical era, Beard explains, “public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn't do: They were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender.” Even now, women who speak forcefully in public are called strident or shrill. To be heard and taken seriously is a prerequisite to power, Beard notes. And despite misogyny and buffoonery, women have persisted in demanding respect.

Some have adopted androgynous signals of leadership. Margaret Thatcher got speech training to lower her voice. Others wear pantsuits, a point Beard illustrates with a picture of Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel greeting each other in identical uniforms like reunited Shakespearean twins.

But, she admits, that masquerade misses the real problem: “...we should be thinking more about the fault-lines and fractures that underlie dominant male discourse.”

Ah, yes. Maybe a study group, the first step British feminists always proposed back in 1972, when I was in the women's movement. But then what? That's the rub.

Beard herself is a practiced speaker and writer, who deploys an accessible language with intelligence, wit and a disarmingly personal voice. She believes in confronting a male antagonist. But even she is at a loss when it comes to changing the status quo.

After a deft summary of the way women are silenced, interrupted, patronized, passed over and ignored, she asks, “What's the practical remedy?”

“Like most women,” she admits, “I wish I knew.”

Moreover, she concedes, “feminist efforts over half a century” to reclaim Medusa and other hostile images of female power haven't made “a blind bit of difference to the way she has been used in attacks on female politicians.” Although she notes that Black Lives Matter was founded by three women, she has to admit that few of us know their names. (As Virginia Woolf first said, “Anon ... was often a woman.”) And Beard's conclusions, in her own words, are “gloomy”: “We have not got anywhere near subverting those foundational stories of power that serve to keep women out of it.”

It's fun to read “Women & Power.” But no manifesto, or womanifesto, no individual woman's success, no intellectual analysis, can change the power structure. It has to be a collective action. The American feminist achievements of this year, from the Women's March to #MeToo, give hope that we may be seeing a new wave of women's power, based on claiming public speech and political space.


Elaine Showalter is a professor emerita of English at Princeton University. She reviewed this book for the Washington Post.