Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

This book is much shorter than I expected, but then it is a couple of lectures that have been turned into essays. The essays are quite smart and highlighted some things I’d certainly never considered.

The first essay begins by focusing on a scene I’d never given much thought to: in the Odyssey, Odysseus’ house is filled with suitors who want to marry Penelope, the assumed widow. A bard starts playing a sad song about all the men who went away to Troy and died. Penelope is overwrought with sorrow and asks the bard to sing a different tune. Telemachus rebukes her and tells her, basically, go do a bunch of womanly things, public speech is men’s work and I’m in charge here! Beard then goes on to draw parallels between that scene and other pieces from art, history, and literature from then to the present day.

The second essay is more about the ways that women are permitted (or not) to engage in the political sphere. She makes a compelling case that, even though we may not consider it, art and literature from the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds cast a long shadow that influences us still today. (For example, the imagery of Medusa as it’s been used through time.)

The only quibble I’d have with the book is that it’s not a manifesto. Beard has no call to action, no ideas for what to do. That being said, I think she’s doing a valuable service raising these parallels between the culture of antiquity and that of the present. Check it out! It’s a quick read.

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