From Virgil to Henry James, Beard reflects on how women’s words have long been viewed as mere noiseby Jessica Abrahams / December 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
We know there are fewer women in positions of power—in politics, the judiciary, business—than men. We know that women are less likely to speak up, and that when they do they are less likely to be listened to.
What Mary Beard reveals so eloquently in less than 100 pages is the ancient foundations of these conditions—how so much of the way that women are treated now can be found reflected in classical stories. A Roman anthologist of the first century AD describes women’s speech as “barking” and “yapping”; compare that to Henry James, who wrote that women would turn language into “the moo of the cow… and the bark of the dog.” And to how we talk of women’s speech today: that they “whine” and “natter” and “nag.” Women have been told for millennia that their words are mere noise.
As we grapple with an environment that has kept women silent about sexual abuse in our own society, a painful few paragraphs remind us of the story of Philomela in the Metamorphoses, whose rapist cuts out her tongue to prevent her from denouncing him. In Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus the raped Lavinia has both her tongue and her hands cut off to prevent her communicating at all.
It is striking how many contemporary parallels spring to mind. The exclusion of women from power is no coincidence—we have a “cultural template” for power, as Beard calls it, that is resolutely male. “You can’t easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male,” she writes. “You have to change the structure.”