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Mary Beard - The Public Voice of Woman

Illustration for article titled Mary Beard - The Public Voice of Woman

(TW: discussion of abuse against women, in particular rape)

For those of you unfamiliar with her, Mary Beard is a professor of Classics. She is an extremely well-respected member of the field, and she is also an outspoken advocate for women's voices in an area of study that has historically been overwhelmingly dominated by men. She is, generally speaking, a baller individual.


Because of her frequent appearances in the media, Beard has been the subject of much vitriol, trolling, and death/rape threats from the anonymous cretins of the internet. Much of the criticism against her has been directed toward her appearance, in particular her long, gray hair.

I wanted to share this excellent piece that she has written tracing the western tradition of undermining and policing female voices in public speaking from Homer's Odyssey through to the present day.


This section in particular stood out to me:

What I want to underline here is that this is not the peculiar ideology of some distant culture. Distant in time it may be. But this is the tradition of gendered speaking – and the theorising of gendered speaking – of which we are still, directly or more often indirectly, the heirs. I don't want to overstate the case. Western culture doesn't owe everything to the Greeks and Romans, in speaking or in anything else (thank heavens it doesn't; none of us would fancy living in a Greco-Roman world). There are all kinds of variant and competing influences on us, and our political system has happily overthrown many of the gendered certainties of antiquity. Yet it remains the fact that our own traditions of debate and public speaking, their conventions and rules, still lie very much in the shadow of the classical world. The modern techniques of rhetoric and persuasion formulated in the Renaissance were drawn explicitly from ancient speeches and handbooks. Our own terms of rhetorical analysis go back directly to Aristotle and Cicero (it's common to point out that Barack Obama, or his speech writers, have learned their best tricks from Cicero). And so far as the House of Commons is concerned, those 19th-century gentlemen who devised, or enshrined, most of the parliamentary rules and procedures that we are now familiar with were brought up on exactly those classical theories, slogans and prejudices that I've been quoting. Again, we're not simply the victims or dupes of our classical inheritance, but classical traditions have provided us with a powerful template for thinking about public speech, and for deciding what counts as good oratory or bad, persuasive or not, and whose speech is to be given space to be heard. And gender is obviously an important part of that mix.

It takes only a casual glance at the modern Western traditions of speech-making – at least up to the 20th century – to see that many of the classical themes I've been highlighting emerge time and time again. Women who claim a public voice get treated as freakish androgynes, like Maesia who defended herself in the Forum. The obvious case is Elizabeth I's belligerent address to the troops at Tilbury in 1588 in the face of the Spanish Armada. In the words many of us learned at school, she seems positively to avow her own androgyny: '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' – an odd slogan to get young girls to learn. In fact, it is quite likely that she never said anything of the sort. There is no script from her hand or that of her speech-writer, no eye-witness account, and the canonical version comes from the letter of an unreliable commentator, with his own axe to grind, written almost forty years later. But for my purpose the probable fictionality of the speech makes it even better: the nice twist is that the male letter-writer puts the boast (or confession) of androgyny into Elizabeth's own mouth.


While Beard's focus is predominantly on the male/female binary that characterizes constructions of identity in the ancient Greco-Roman world and how that persists to the present day, I think the general message about critically examining our own cultural baggage in terms of how it negatively affects others has a lot of broader application.

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