The Public Voice of Women
varium et mutabile semper femina – Virgil Aeneid V.569-570
Or, as rendered by David West, “Women are unstable creatures, always changing.”
A sort of wry smile would be shared around the room at university when we read sentences like this. A smug look that seemed to say, ‘ah, the ancients and their ways – of course we have come so far since then’. There was a sort of tacit agreement not to go too deeply into discussion about such assertions. You can’t call Virgil anti-feminist if feminism didn’t exist then right?
Well, what you can do is look at how some ancient views are embedded still in today’s society. Mary Beard has. In the first chapter of her manifesto, Women and Power, she highlights how some attitudes from the very earliest western literature still affect how we perceive women’s speech, particularly in public, today.
Virgil’s Aeneid is an epic in all the technical and emotional senses of that word. There are many reasons to read, study and enjoy it (David West’s Penguin edition is excellent or both Latin text and English translations are online). The hero, Aeneas, escapes from the sack of Troy and spends years trying to fulfil his fate and found the city that will lead to Rome, eventually succeeding despite all the women who stand in his way. It isn’t possible to summarise a masterpiece; I won’t apologise for that representation.
Ultimately Aeneas will found a city called Lavinium, south of the future site of Rome and his descendants will found Rome. When he finally gets to Italy, the king of Latium offers his daughter, Lavinia’s, hand in marriage. I won’t dwell on how political decisions were sealed through using women as possessions.
The king, Latinus, knows that Lavinia must marry a non-Latin and that the descendants of that race will bring fame to the Latin name and rule the world, because an oracle has told him so. He sought out the oracle because Lavinia’s hair catches fire when tending a sacred altar with her father, leading him to consult on what this portent means (Aeneid VII.69-80).
Queen Amata, Latinus’ wife is furious because she wanted her daughter to marry Turnus, king of a nearby tribe. Actually she isn’t furious because that would be too manly; she is instead inflamed by womanly concerns and angers (femineae… curaeque iraeque conquebant VII.345). Juno sends a fury, Allecto, to stir both Amata and Turnus to action to stop the marriage (she’s female and she’s gorged with the poisons of the Gorgons – see below on the use of Medusa’s image in the classical world and today). Amata tries to change Latinus’ mind and is driven mad. Turnus declares war.
So, Lavinia is set on fire (she’s unharmed) as a warning about whom she should marry, news of her marriage causes her mother to go insane and the man who wanted to marry her declares war. Battles, injuries, deaths ensue. Amata kills herself. Aeneas kills Turnus.
What does Lavinia say about it all? Nothing. Honestly, she doesn’t speak. She is literally on fire, later metaphorically on fire as she blushes when her marriage is discussed and she tears at her once again rosy cheeks when her mother dies. She is central to the whole plot and she has no voice.
Why? I wonder if it even entered Virgil’s mind that she might speak. Beard gives an example from Homer’s Odyssey, authored let’s say eight hundred years or so earlier: Penelope asks a bard to sing about something other than the problems that the Greeks are having in returning home and “young Telemachus intervenes: ‘Mother, he says, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loon 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 off she goes back upstairs.” Public speech is for men; women, shut up.
Beard seeks examples of women being able to speak out in the classical world. She finds one first century AD Roman, Valerius Maximus, who lists three examples of women who spoke in the forum. The first looked like a man. The second dared to plead a legal case for herself and died young, apparently deservedly because she was a monster, something unnatural. The third was allowed to speak because she addressed an issue of taxation that affected women exclusively; only in this unique circumstance when no man dared to defend women was a woman allowed a voice.
Women in the classical world could speak on rare occasions like the one detailed above or could speak out as victims. Beard gives the example of Lucretia who supposedly did speak to tell her family when she was raped. Of course, she then kills herself apparently so as to maintain a modicum of womanly virtue…
What has all of this go to do with today? It’s all very interesting, but surely academic, right? Wrong. Then, public speech made you a man. The male voice sounded authoritative. Female voices were threatening to the stability of the state. Today, traditions of public speaking inherit much from the classical world.
And, why does that matter? Because we need to understand how we think about and judge public speech if we stand any chance of changing the way in which women are heard. It is still the case that often when you hear women speaking publically, they are speaking out ‘as a woman’ about something that affects or is seen to affect exclusively women. Beard points out also how embedded our ideas of the very sound of a woman’s voice is – women ‘whine’ apparently even when stating something really rather important while the deep voice of a man lends authority.
It seems obvious to state that, “there is no neurological reason for us to hear low-pitched voices as more authoritative than high-pitched ones” (p. 33) but this made me really stop and think. I am as guilty as anyone of hearing high-pitched voices as ‘whiny’ and ‘annoying’. I even find myself apologising frequently when I think I sound like that. Investigating how these prejudices have become a part of the way we think is hopefully a step on the road to really listening to what someone (man or woman) is really saying.
Recently I was talking to a (male) friend who works in aviation. We got talking about the lack of female pilots and I recounted my surprise when, on a flight last year, the pilot introduced herself over the address system. That’s right, she was a woman. Not only that, she had a regional accent. When flying, I suspect that most of us are used to hearing a male voice with an RP accent and that we associate this with authority and the ability to reassure.
Our conversation led to my explaining how I had felt when I was usually the only female manager in a room in a previous job. I said that not always, but sometimes, I would make a point that was not listened to until one male agreed with me or until he seemed to claim the point for himself. Working in a shop, I have experienced occasions on which I explain something to a customer and he just won’t believe me until a male member of staff wandered past and confirmed exactly what I had said. My friend leaned back and asked, quite genuinely: ‘but do you think that’s just in your head?’. ‘No I don’t, because it isn’t.’ I replied firmly.
For anyone who thinks the silencing of women is ‘in their heads’, just take a look at responses on Twitter when women speak out about something outside of a ‘woman’s issue’. Threats of rape, murder, ripping out tongues abound. Only a couple of days ago, I read a pretty horrendous article professing to be about Mary Beard in which the journalist questioned why she doesn’t just get off Twitter and focus on her academic work. I explained loudly to the computer screen that the response to someone trying to silence you cannot be to be silenced. I can’t put it better than Beard does herself: silence “risks leaving the bullies in unchallenged occupation of the playground”.
But is Beard right to see connections between horrific and aggressive language online and the way in which MPs in the House of Commons heckle women? I was a little nervous when I first read this assertion, thinking that no one comes out well from these braying sessions, man or woman. So I did some research, or really just some revision, and a bit of watching PMQs.
I recalled that a year ago a male MP barked at a female MP while she was speaking. Amazingly he then tried to justify this as showing that he thought she was being ‘snappy’ and trying to make a point of her ‘canine behaviour’. Male MP compares female MP to dog. Great justification. And then there’s the case of Layla Moran, a Liberal Democrat MP whom MPs from opposition parties jeered at so loudly when she stood to ask a question that her voice could not be heard. Thankfully John Bercow was there to point out that she was an articulate lady. Not that she was Lib Dem Shadow Secretary for Education or anything. As far as I can see, it looks as though most of the men just expect to be heard while the women can only hope to get a few words in and often don’t. Further, the men can speak on any subject while the women can speak as representatives of women. Beard is indeed right to highlight that on Twitter and in the House of Commons alike, men try to silence women.
How to change all of this is not something to which even Mary Beard has the answer. She gives examples of where classical culture was at least aware of its own assumptions. There are moments where writers highlighted how difficult it was to silence women and questioned whether oratory was “so safely masculine”. I couldn't agree more that we too need to raise questions about the way we perceive authority in public speech and be more self-aware. But, while actively exploring these ideas is a step in the right direction, I can’t help but imagine a room of men patting themselves on the back for listening to some women’s thoughts on this and then going back to their assumed territory. Hence, we also need to address the issue of women in power…
Women in Power
Again, Beard looks at the way in which language and images affect how we even think about power and women. Separately, is the message. She prints a picture of Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel greeting each other in matching trouser suits. It’s not an original point but it’s well made and worth repeating: “we have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man”.
She also uses the example of a headline in The Times last year that referred to the possibility that the Metropolitan police commissioner, chair of the BBC Unitary Board and bishop of London could soon all be women. The Times referred to this as a ‘power grab’ by women. Adding to this, may I be the 94,000th person to point to the Daily Mail’s front page yesterday. In response to Theresa May promoting some women and ethnic minority MPs, the headline ran, ‘Massacre of the Middle-aged Men’. Sixteen out of twenty-three of her ‘new’ cabinet are white men. Five are women. Move over Private Eye, the Mail just satirises itself these days.
Some of the most fascinating examples of classical influences on views of women in power today are Beard’s arguments about the use of the Gorgon Medusa. Looking at the Gorgon’s head, with its famous snakes for hair, turned people to stone. Cut off by the hero Perseus and displayed on the shield of the unmistakeably masculine-looking goddess Athena, Medusa’s head was a symbol for man conquering destructive female power.
As in classical times, so now. Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton have all been represented as Medusa. One Donald Trump supporter adapted a picture of Cellini’s bronze of Perseus holding Medusa’s severed head so that Trump’s face replaced Perseus’ and Clinton’s replaced Medusa’s. Astonishingly, this violent image was sold on t-shirts, tote bags, mugs etc… Or perhaps this isn’t that surprising. For Beard, this represents unequivocally how ingrained the exclusion of women from power is.
What is so important about this second essay in Beard’s manifesto is not only that she usefully questions where assumptions and ingrained prejudices come from and how to address these but also that she widens her discussion of power so that it doesn’t only relate to politicians or CEOs. She talks about the need to separate power from public prestige and celebrity. Instead, her concern is with the kind of power that we would all want, “to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously”.
Drawing together her points about they way we hear (or manage not to hear) women’s voices and the way women are excluded from a power structure that “is already coded as male”, Beard is not entirely pessimistic. She tries to find positive examples of women effecting change, such as the three women who founded Black Lives Matter.
Sadly, she does not find many examples to help her maintain this positivity about the future. “We have not got anywhere near subverting those foundational stories of power that serve to keep women out of it,” she writes. Agreed, we cannot sit back as I once did and smile in a knowing ‘we have come so far’ manner. We can appreciate that there has been major change in the last hundred years. But it’s not enough and women are still on the outskirts, trying to get a man to listen to them. Women and men should read this book seriously and work to create more examples to show that we can be optimistic about change.