Book Review: Women & Power by Mary Beard

After a little reading hiatus, I was talking to my mom about what I should get from the library and she mentioned she’d just read Women & Power by classics scholar Mary Beard. Mary Beard apparently has a cult following in the world of history for her feminist takes on topics like politics and the Romans and her infamous Twitter clapbacks.

When I picked up Women & Power at the library, my first reaction was “it’s so small!” You hear classics professor and think long-winded book with footnotes, right? Not here. Women & Power is a little over 100 pages long and is based on two lectures Beard gave in the late 2000’s, so the style of writing is actually pretty relaxed and conversational. In fact, it’s labeled as a “manifesto” rather than a textbook or a novel.

Overall, it’s argument is simple: society values men so women try to act like men to get power, but it doesn’t really go great. She references female politicians like Hillary Clinton and Theresa May and ways they have taken on traditionally masculine qualities in order to be taken seriously (like talking in a lower register or wearing pantsuits).

As a classics scholar, a lot of her argument harkens back to Greek & Roman texts like the Odyssey. By connecting the ways women in these ancient stories and the way women are presented in media today, she argues that we’re not that far away from Roman life after all.

But Beard also makes the argument that this is changing. Things are far from perfect, but we’re starting to see a glimpse of what having women in power would look like when women are allowed to do more than mimic men. Clinton talked more about being a grandmother and getting her hair done in her 2016 election campaign. Theresa May is famous for her kitten heel obsession and can still be taken seriously as a politician (for the most part).

All in all: society is improving, but it’s still frustrating to see how little we’ve come from our ancient ancestors when it comes to accepting women in power.

And that’s sort of it! She doesn’t give us hope or solutions for the future. She pretty much ends the manifesto with a “sucks to suck”. Did I find it interesting? Yes. I like a text with a clear, strong argument with lots of references. Do I think there’s a lot more to it? Also, yes. But that doesn’t really seem like what Beard was going for. If she wanted to write a 400-page nuanced history of women and power she would have, but instead wanted to write an elaborate thesis statement. It was fun to dip into and it’s always nice to finish up a book in less than 24 hours, so if you’re looking for a quick feminist read I definitely recommend this one.

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