Map #20: Women & Power

I was going to write today about the annual World Economic Forum in Davos—and I did pen this very brief critique (To stave off revolution, Davos must do something radical. Here it is.).

But then my (and everyone’s) attention swung. The news that everyone here in London was talking about this week, from the Prime Minister’s Office to the pub, was the annual ‘charity dinner’ hosted by the Presidents Club, which brought together 360 male businesspeople and 130 young ‘hostesses’, then proceeded to demonstrate a great deal about the landscape of gender relations in London in 2018.

And about how quickly that landscape is changing. A year ago, did anyone think to cover the 2017 charity dinner of the Presidents Club? (This year’s dinner was the 33rd annual in the Club’s history.) But in the wake of the Weinstein stories, and the #metoo and #timesup movements, suddenly the Financial Times sniffed a significant story and sent a couple of female reporters undercover to blow this scandal wide open.

I wonder what this week will bring?

Brave voyages, all of us,


Some maps are deeper than others

Navigating change is an exercise in self-awareness. If we want to ‘make new maps’ to help us manoeuvre (for U.S. friends, ‘maneuver’) to a new world, step one is to discover what our present maps are. What are the maps we have been navigating by up until now?

Some of our maps are filed more deeply than others. If we imagine a chest in which all our mental and cultural maps are stored, I’m betting that ‘gender relations’ is in the very bottom drawer—that is, so embedded in everyone’s thoughts and behaviors that, until recently, one might never pull it out for study and yet never be accused of making a wrong turn.

The universal condemnation that London’s Presidents Club, Harvey Weinstein and other sexual misconduct cases generate today, contrasted by our apparent tolerance of the same behaviors just one year ago, suggests that we could all benefit from opening that bottom drawer, lifting this map out and putting it under a bright reading light.

As the younger brother to an older sister, I learned from a very young age to respect female authority. Beyond that, this isn’t an area that I’ve studied. So to help me understand our current cultural map of gender roles, I turned to a new book by Mary Beard, Women and Power: A Manifesto. Mary Beard is a household name in the UK and a world-renowned historian based at Cambridge University. She is a professor (the professor, really) on classical Greece and Rome. (And her Tweets are sharp and witty.)

Ancient Greece and Rome are relevant to many immediate challenges (particularly in the West), because much of our culture has been inherited from, and is still influenced by, the classical world. Socrates and Caesar shaped our basic ideas about democracy and tyranny. Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius shaped our ethical intuitions. And, Mary argues, ‘when it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of year of practice.’

We’ve mapped gender and power together

As her title suggests, Mary’s book is only half about gender. The other half is about power, and the two are inseparable. Since the time of classical Greece and Rome, power has been gendered. In almost all the stories that survive from that time, the female characters make clear the role of women in society. Homer’s Odyssey, about Odysseus’s return home from the Trojan War, begins with a scene between Odysseues, his wife Penelope, and their son Telemachus:

Penelope comes down from her private quarters into the great hall of the palace, to find a bard performing. He is singing about the difficulties the Greek heroes are having in reaching home. She isn’t amused, and in front of everyone she asks him to choose another, happier number. At which point young Telemachus intervenes: “Mother, 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.”

In the early 4th century BC:

Aristophanes devoted a whole comedy to the “hilarious” fantasy that women might take over running the state. Part of the joke was that women couldn’t speak properly in public—or rather, they couldn’t adapt their private speech (which in this case was largely fixated on sex) to the lofty idiom of male politics.

And in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (an epic about people changing shape):

Poor Io (one of Zeus’ mortal lovers) 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.

In part out of such stories as these, a specific cultural ideal of power and authority was shaped. Public speech had a gender; it was by definition male. Power had a pitch: male, low, ‘profound’. A high-pitched voice was by definition female—‘strident’, ‘whining’ and weak. During the European Renaissance, when many cultural ideals of classical Greece and Rome were reborn, these classical models of authority were likewise reinvigorated. Fresh generations of would-be statesmen started to read the speeches of Cicero, the triumphs of Caesar and the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Mary isn’t arguing that the classical world was the only influence on our gendered notion of power, but ’classical traditions have provided us with a powerful template for thinking about public speech, and for deciding what counts as good oratory and bad, persuasive or not, and whose speech is to be given space to be heard.’

Forced to choose

Within a culture such as ours, where power and authority is ‘coded’ as male, women have a choice: fit into that structure, or change the structure itself. In the classical world, the only viable option was the former. Publicly outspoken women had to cloak their femininity somehow. (The goddess of war, Athena, dressed in a soldier’s uniform and remained virgin.) Or they restricted their public speech to ‘women’s issues’: the home, children, their husbands or the interests of women.

Mary notes that the former choice has been made by Western women to claim a public voice all the way up to the present day. In 1588, in her Speech to the Troops at Tilbury, Elizabeth I of England told them:

I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too…

Margaret Thatcher famously took lessons to lower the pitch of her voice. Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton wear pantsuits—probably out of choice, convenience and practicality, but also to fit our expectations of what power looks like. Mary also suggests that:

It was the disconnect in our heads between ‘women’ and ‘power’ that made Melissa McCarthy’s parodies of the one-time White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live so effective. It was said that these annoyed President Trump more than most satires of his regime because, according to sources close to him, “he doesn’t like his people to appear weak.” Decode that, and what it actually means is that he doesn’t like his men to be parodied by/as women.

(If power is gendered as male in our world, then for Trump weakness is also gendered—as female.)

Gender-inclusive power?

But perhaps now is the moment in our culture when we ‘change the structure itself.’ This, Mary argues, is the prime map-making opportunity of our time: to become critically self-aware of what we expect power to look and sound like, and to redraw those expectations. To re-code power to be gender-inclusive. ‘It is happily the case that there are now more women in what we would all probably agree are “powerful” positions than there were ten, let alone fifty years ago…But my basic premise is that our mental, cultural template for a “powerful person” remains resolutely male.’

A gender-inclusive map of power would, Mary thinks, distinguish ‘power’ from ‘public prestige’ or ‘celebrity.’ It would diminish the notion of power as a noun and think of it more as a verb: less a thing that can be possessed (which implies that others do not possess it) and more an action that might come from anywhere. It would be both individual and collective—recognizing the power of followers alongside the power of leaders.

Or we could go the other way, and, as in the European Renaissance, take this opportunity to reinvigorate classical ideas about gendered power and speech (like this Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, who wants his daughters to be homemakers, not ‘career obsessed banshees’).

Personally, I find Mary’s project more interesting. She opens a fresh dimension—power—to our awakening conversation about gender. We know power when we see it. Let’s get curious about that map. How do we know power when we see it? What signifies power to us? And how might we scramble those signals?

More from Mary Beard

Women in Power’ (YouTube, 2017) — Mary’s full public lecture, upon which her book Women & Power is based (73 minutes).

The Millennia of #MeToo’ (The New Yorker, 2017) — A review of Mary’s book that then evolves into a discussion of what the electoral contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump revealed about gendered power in the U.S.

The Poison of Patriarchy’ (The Guardian, 2017) — All the main ideas from Mary’s book, compressed into a 5-minute read.