Renowned classicist Prof Mary Beard’s latest book, Women and Power: A Manifesto (Profile, 2017) is to be published in the next few days. As the title of the work makes clear, Beard considers, by applying examples of women’s lives from classical to contemporary times, evidence which highlights the often deeply patriarchal nature of women’s treatment in (and by) history.
Beard, classified by the FT as ‘an irrepressible enthusiast with a refreshing disregard for convention’, considers the way in which the ‘public voice of women’ is challenged by the ‘cultural underpinnings of misogyny’. And she argues that ‘if women aren’t perceived to be within the structures of power, isn’t it power that we need to redefine?’
Powerful though Beard’s argument is, it is one that has resonated down the years. It is particularly true whenever the topic of marriage and motherhood enters into the equation. In the 1880s, radical women’s suffragists such as Mona Caird and Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy were bringing to public attention the ways in which men sought to manipulate arguments that child-bearing meant women were too ‘weak’ or simply unable to exercise the rational judgement needed to take their place as full citizens of the British nation – let alone take the reins of power themselves.
Yet the radical women of the suffrage movement – and here I claim suffragists and suffragettes to be as one category – understood that power often comes only to those with the persistence and determination to acquire it. They undermined male arguments which opposed their right to the vote on the grounds of them being too weak to fight for their country, with the powerful rhetoric that they fought everyday in childbirth to provide male lives for the military – and thus had the prior claim to the franchise! It was such ideas as these, later taken up by the women of the Women’s Social and Political Union as the bedrock of their theory, that placed the idea of women’s power in the public realm of the struggle for the vote.
I look forward to reading Mary Beard’s work and hope that it will bring history alive for all who seek to understand the concept of power struggles through women’s eyes.
- Professor Mary Beard ‘Women and Power: A Manifesto’
- Maureen Wright, Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist Movement, (2014)
- Mona Caird, The Morality of Marriage, (1897), Republished by Cambridge University Press, (2010).