I love the story of how Mary Beard’s lifelong love of Greek and Roman history began.  She visited the National Museum during a trip to London with her mum.  She was 5 years old and craning her neck to see a slice of a 4000 year old Egyptian birthday cake.  A member of staff noticed the small girl’s difficulty in getting a good look at the cake so he unlocked the display case and lifted the cake down to allow the child a close up view.  Beard comments that her whole career has been an attempt to replicate this man’s behaviour, to make ancient history accessible to everyone.

Although Beard has known fame through TV appearances for almost a decade, as well as writing (books and editorial such as the TLS) I’ve only read her most recent book, Women and Power.  In this short book Beard uses her extensive knowledge of the Classics to demonstrate that western civilisation has been built upon a premise that only men should speak in public.  She argues that to create a fair playing field for all we need to reconsider how power actually looks and sounds.  Beard refers to an incident in Homer’s Odyssey, the second oldest work of literature in western history, when a teenage boy, Telemachus, whose father is away at war, tells his mum to shut up and leave the room in front of a group of friends and associates.

“Mother, go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and distaff…speech will be the business of men, all men, and me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.”

His mum, Penelope, who has had the strength to maintain stability at home and raise her son while her husband is at war, is silenced and leaves the gathering.  Beard refers to this as an example of the prohibition of women’s public speech which continued for thousands of years and is still apparent today.

As the first female prime minister of the UK, Margaret Thatcher was coached to lower her voice during public speeches.  Seemingly it was startling enough to see a human with breasts in a position of power but to hear a higher pitch of voice as well was too much for some voters to handle.

Beard’s own experience of “talking” in public, via TV, social media and editorial, has attracted a lot of criticism, much of it attacking her personally.  The journalist, A A Gill, criticised her for “being too ugly for TV” despite the fact that she was presenting a historical programme for which she was well-qualified to present in her natural engaging manner.

It could be argued that anyone who speaks in public will attract criticism as well as praise.  If women want to be part of public debate and assume roles of power they have to accept that public criticism is part of that deal.  But it seems that women who speak within a public forum have to deal with more than criticism of the content of their speech.  The sinister nature of personal attacks on Beard through social media, with threats of rape and murder, seem particularly disturbing.  It would be tempting to shut up and leave the room as Homer wrote of Penelope .  However, Beard has enjoyed a long career of academic discussion before she appeared on the screen and this was great preparation for many public debates, especially on Twitter.

“My job is working with students, if they make a point that I don’t agree with then I’ll argue my point.”

The general consensus regarding bullying is to ignore the bullies and they’ll go away but Beard has courageously stood up to the trolls.  In one case she not only began an interaction with a cyber-hater but ended up giving him a job reference.  This incident is perhaps the best example of power that Beard can give to us.  She speaks in public via written, filmed and digital media, despite the anxiety and panic that it can cause, with discernment – deciding who to challenge and who to ignore.

The challenge for each of us is to take our own public speaking to the next level.  It may simply be to raise our hands in class more often, be more willing to learn through discourse or it may be by standing up to speak at the next national conference.  Whatever your own experience be sure that there’s a group of women standing with you, cheering you on and grateful for your own example of continuing public debate.

*This post is a result of hearing Mary Beard speak at the Festival of Politics within the Scottish Parliament and reading her book, “Women and Power”.


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