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REVIEW — Women, power and the reinforcement of patriarchy

August is a time dedicated to the advancement of women, but despite lots of talk over the years, little has changed. Mphuthumi Ntabeni looks at Mary Beard's seminal book on the origins of misogyny and how modern society perpetuates these. 

Women and Power – A Manifesto. Profile Books Limited, Mary Beard. ISBN-1788160606. 115 pages.

Every year we recognise August as Women's month. Every year we’re ashamed of the brutality our society meets against our women and children. Every year we pretend things will get better while statistics make it clear they’re getting worse. Every year we talk the talk that’s not leading us to walk the walk. We have learnt that the ultimate cause of this problem is the breakups and betrayals of our family structures, but prefer to point a finger at government, society, schools, churches, everything and everyone vaguely reprehensible while the rest of the four fingers point back at us.

This year I told myself I would not speak, but rather to listen. I decided to use the month as a moment to learn; to reflect on the real reason why this evil seems to perpetually prevail in our country. I thought I would listen to those who are in pain, and not throw my voice on the fray to drown their grief; that I would try and educate myself on how I am reprehensible. I began with Mary Beard's Women and Power: A Manifesto.

Beard, a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge extended two lectures that were commissioned by the London Review of Book in 2014 and 2016 into this seminal book. She traces the origins of misogyny from the ancient Greek and Roman myths that have influenced not only western literature, but also its talk on the public square. Beard is extremely skilful in tracing how phallocentric tendencies quietly silence women into misogyny before becoming full blown patriarchy.

“Thankfully, not everything we do or think goes back directly or indirectly to the Greeks and Romans,” she says “and I often find myself insisting that there are no simple lessons for us in the history of the ancient world. We really didn’t need the unfortunate Roman precedents in the region to know that modern western military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq might be a bad idea. The ‘collapse’ of the Roman Empire in the west has little to tell us about the ups-and-downs of modern geopolitics. That said, looking harder at Greece and Rome, helps us to look harder at ourselves, and to understand better how we have learned to think as we do.”

The classics

What I like best about Beard is how invariably she ties the issue of feminism with what it means to be authentically human. She starts with the epic story of Homer, Odyssey. She looks beyond the enactment of homecoming from war, the adventures and ancient Greek civilisation that usually entrances us on the story, but successfully turns it inside out to reveal patriarchy.

We begin with Penelope, Odysseus’ long suffering wife, who, day in and day out, is assailed by “throngs of performing suitors”. They sing about difficulties and perils the Greek warriors face on their journeys back home from the Trojan wars. They wish to blunt her hope for ever seeing her husband again. But her love for him is resilient. She’s offended instead of being flattered by their attention. She asks them to sing of pleasanter things at least in their bard songs. Her son, Telemachus, somehow eager to lord over his father’s house, tries to put her in her “womanly” place: “Mother,” he says, “go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.” And so goes the first record in western literature of a man parading the silencing and exclusion of a woman’s voice from public speech. A son, nogal.

From Homer Beard proceeds swiftly to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (probably the most influential work of literature on western art after the Bible) – where she repeatedly returns to the idea of silencing women in the process of compelling them to transform into men’s objects: “Poor Io is turned by the god Jupiter into a cow, so she cannot talk but only moo; while the chatty nymph Echo is punished so that her voice is never her own, merely an instrument for repeating the words of others.” Beard succinctly puts it thus.

Once you recall that in almost all the culture/ literature of the world women have repeatedly been mocked as yapping/barking/meowing to dissuade them from public speech you get the picture. The only time women are allowed to speak publicly in antiquity is when they’re prefacing their deaths with testimony; almost always it has something to do with religion. For instance, devout and virtuous Lucretia, raped by a brutal prince of the ruling monarchy, was given a speaking platform solely to denounce the rapist as she announces her own suicide. Christian female martyrs were allowed to loudly and publicly profess their faith as they marched to the lions that devoured them.

In Metamorphoses Ovid tells also of the rape of the young princess Philomela. The rapist cut her tongue out to prevent her testifying against him in public. Beard reminds us that this notion is also picked up in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, where the tongue of the raped Lavinia is also ripped out. Sadly this despicable practise has survived to our times, acted upon, for real, in township ditches where it is not unheard of to find raped and killed young women with vaginas filled with beer bottles and tongues ripped out of their mouths. The horror of it has become something we hear of in front of our televisions as news.

Other exceptions were also made for women to speak in public. Beard recalls the story of Hortensia who explicitly acted as the spokesperson for the women of Rome after they had been subject to a special wealth tax to fund a dubious war effort. “Women, in other words, may in extreme circumstances publicly defend their own sectional interests, but not speak for men or the community as a whole.” While this Beard extrapolated from the story, sadly this is how many within our own patriarchal structures, including the Church, still feel to date.

I rued the brevity of her lectures when Beard quoted the second-century AD guru saying, “a woman should modestly guard against exposing her voice to outsiders as she would guard against stripping off her clothes.” I would have loved hearing her here extending her argument into the Islamic culture, but she made it clear at the beginning of her book that she was examining things only through the western culture prism – such a pity considering. But is perhaps an opportunity for Asian and African intellectuals to do something similar for our suffocating patriarchal cultures also.

It continues

After diagnosing these ancient seeds of patriarchy, Beard makes non-superficial links with the contemporary politics of the likes of Trump and Boris Johnson to demonstrate the lethal effects on silencing women. She shows, for instance, the similarities between the ancient story of cutting Medusa’s head and what the trolls of the Trump crew did to Hilary Clinton during the US presidential campaign. The extension is very easy for South Africans to make towards Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

The revolution of the consciousness, not reforms, is Beard’s ultimate hope for going beyond merely making women leaders ape fleas of patriarchy for personal ambition (she cites Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel as undesirable examples of this, what she called the ‘androgyne’ route). When she points to Teresa May as an example of women put in power in order to fail I again couldn’t help suspect this would have been Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's fate had she won the power battle within the ANC.

“To put this the other way round, we have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man.” That’s how Beard concludes before declaring: “my basic premise is that our mental, cultural template for a powerful person remains resolutely male”. She then invites ways of balancing this before making a few real suggestions on how to extricate ourselves from the mess of patriarchy through revolutionary consciousness

Once we understand muteness as a powerful part of excluding women from power we are on the first stage towards real gender empowerment. Effective self communication is at the centre of what Beard sees as first steps towards a solution. She says Ovid, for instance, may have emphatically silenced his women in their transformation or mutilation, but he also suggested that communication could transcend the human voice, and that women were not that easily silenced. “Philomela lost her tongue, but she still managed to denounce her rapist by weaving the story into a tapestry (which is why Shakespeare’s Lavinia has her hands, as well as her tongue, removed).”


Not only does Shakespeare come up with a bloody nose here, but the likes of Henry James also for writing about what he called the “polluting, contagious and socially destructive effect of women’s voices” in words that could easily have come from the pen of some second-century AD Roman (and were almost certainly in part derived from classical sources). Under American women’s influence, he insisted, language risks becoming a “generalised mumble or jumble, a tongueless slobber or snarl or whine;” it will sound like “the moo of the cow, the bray of the ass, and the bark of the dog”. Not only did he germinate the seeds of patriarchy, he plagiarised them also.

The modern media, BBC in particular, also is not let off the hook, for presenting the prospect of a woman becoming the Anglican bishop of London as “a Power Grab”. As if women had no right to power.

In showing where the real problem lies, i.e. with power, Beard reminds us of the inglorious end of Rome’s most powerful public speaker and debate, Marcus Tullius Cicero, during the course of the Roman civil wars that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Cicero was killed by Mark Anthony’s hit-squad who triumphantly brought his head and hands to Rome. They pinned them up, for all to see, on the speaker’s platform in the Forum where he used to orate. Fulvia, the wife of Mark Antony, on whose insistence the hit-squad was established – because she and her husband had been victims of some of Cicero’s most devastating polemics, went along to have a look. And when she saw those bits of him, she removed the pins from her hair and repeatedly stabbed them into the dead man’s tongue in soaring vindictiveness.

“It’s a disconcerting image of one of the defining articles of female adornment, the hairpin, used as a weapon against the very site of the production of male speech – a kind of reverse Philomela.”

As my luck would have it, on the same night I finished Beard's book I watched the episode of the BBC mini series titled Killing Eve. There the female protagonist of this intelligent, sometimes gruesome series, murders one of her victims by stabbing him in the eye with a poisoned hairpin. I couldn’t help admire the quiet endurance of these stories, while worrying at the same time about the seeds they plant in our subconscious minds.

“What we need,” Beard says, “is some old fashioned consciousness-raising about what we mean by the ‘voice of authority’ and how we’ve come to construct it. We need to work that out before we figure out how we modern Penelopes might answer back to our own Telemachuses – or, for that matter, just decide to lend Miss Triggs some hairpins.” Beard throws everything open in the end.

The feminist anger is justifiable. The failure is mostly with us men. First because of household and family structure breakdown whose causes are usually our fault. Secondly, it is our inability to hold each other, men-to-men, by higher standards of authentic humanism. We still, for instance, associate chivalry with the dishonesty of philandering. We hold ourselves with recessive notions of associating wealth with multiple wives or mistresses. These are the seeds of our shame. The young germinate and emulate them into logical conclusion, violently asserting their worth with crimes of power: rape and murder.

We fail not only our women, but our children and the nation as the results. The dying of the conscience of Ubuntu is in our hands and the blood spilled in these crimes of power scream in our ears because we’re reprehensible.

Perhaps by next August we would do less talking, more listening and action. I don’t care where we rediscover our old fashioned consciousness raising – whether religion, culture or tradition – we must recover it and spread it along our family and friend lines because we can’t continue in this self-destructive nongqawuse (suicidal) syndrome again.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.