February 21, 2014

Strident, whining, ignorant morons: Mary Beard on the female voice in the public realm


Telemachus and Penelope

Telemachus and Penelope

We reported last summer on the torrent of online abuse classicist and Cambridge don Mary Beard encountered after appearing on the British program Question Time, and how she responded: by retweeting the threatening, grotesque, and insulting things she was called, which ended up shaming at least one of the trolls into a public apology.

Last Friday, Beard gave a lecture at the British Museum that analyzed the roots of the issues she’d seen roiling her own life earlier this year. That lecture, “The Public Voice of Women,” is now up on the LRB’s blog, and in it Beard makes the compelling case that many of the problems of gender, public speech, and authority that repeatedly lead to such moments of outsized backlash (which social media facilitates and amplifies) have their origin in the classical era.

It goes, depressingly, all the way back to Homer. Beard cites what she calls the “first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up,’” when, in the first book of The Odyssey, Telemachus says to Penelope:

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.

And there are numerous other examples of silencing, equally dire to contemplate for modern heirs to the classical world: Io (turned into a cow to prevent her from speaking) and Echo (who can only repeat what others say), in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Roman women who defended themselves in legal cases and were described as “the androgyne” or “freaks” in historical records.

In fact, Beard identifies only two ways that women can speak in public, only two forums where their voices are legitimized: when they speak as “victims and martyrs” or on behalf of “their homes, their children, their husbands or the interests of other women.”

Her point, however, is not only to say that these things went on in the real and literary realms; more precisely,

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. As we saw with Telemachus, to become a man – and we’re talking elite man – was to claim the right to speak. Public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of male-ness.

And the legacy of a deep connection between maleness and public speech is a permanent question mark over the authority of a female voice: why should it be believed or followed? How easily can it be dismissed?

There is a direct line to be drawn between Beard’s conclusions and things like the annual VIDA statistics, which we’ve blogged about here, here, and here.

Because the VIDA statistics and other markers of how often, in what contexts, and how effectively women’s voices weigh in on — to limit the parameters here —- literary questions alone are fundamentally about individual moments of authority: authority asserted, authority granted.

Most often — or most visibly — we see the negative side of this: authority questioned or undermined. It’s done through aggressive trollery or outright insult (Beard says she’s “lost count of the number of times I’ve been called ‘an ignorant moron’”), but also through the words used to characterize female speech: whiny, strident (as in the recent Jennifer Weiner debates), or words that dehumanize the speakers: “barking,” “yapping.”

None of this, of course, is new — not to Beard, and not to any faintly awake readers of this blog or almost any other literary publication, where these questions have long been debated — and Beard acknowledges this with good humor and balance.

There would, therefore, seem to be no reason to write about this again, if the writers of these articles, lectures, and blogposts didn’t experience this instability in our own lives, on a daily basis, in too fundamental a way to ignore. The path towards a sense of one’s own legitimacy as a public speaker in a particular arena — which all individuals navigate with varying results — feels especially troubled for women.

And perhaps the toughest part of is that, as individuals, it’s never quite clear whether the problems are internal or external — I can’t be the only woman who has thought “maybe it’s better in my 30s/40s/50s?” But Beard’s own blogpost for the TLS about writing the lecture, in which she talks about how much more worried she became about it she learned that it was going to be recorded for BBC4, only makes it clear that it doesn’t necessarily get much easier with time and experience and publications under one’s belt.

So the genealogy she establishes for some part of these issues — how we got here from there — is more than welcome. It clears the decks for, as she puts it, “some old fashioned consciousness-raising about what we mean by the voice of authority and how we’ve come to construct it.”


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.