Classics scholar and Cambridge professor Mary Beard explains that the misogyny women face today – from anonymous social media threats of violence to subtle acts of exclusion from systems of power – trace back to classical antiquity. Writing in an academic, yet lively and accessible style, she details how society constructed power to exclude women. Beard’s rousing survey of history urges readers to re-imagine what power could look like today.
Ancient examples of men silencing women relate to contemporary events.
One of the earliest examples of a man silencing a woman’s voice dates back 3,000 years, near the origins of recorded Western culture. In Homer’s Odyssey, the queen Penelope asks a bard, who is singing about the obstacles preventing Greek heroes from returning home after the Trojan War, to sing a happier song; her husband, Odysseus, is among these missing heroes.
Her son Telemachus silences her, saying, “Go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff…speech will be the business of men, all men, and me most of all, for mine is the power in this household.” Ancient narratives offer multiple such examples of men silencing women. These examples relate to contemporary moments of men excluding women from public speech. The stories also show that modern-day bullying – say, by posting threats on social media – and the abuse of women who disagree with men, or challenge existing authority structures, is not a new phenomenon.
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Mary Beard, the classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement, is a classics professor at the University of Cambridge, an ancient literature professor at the Royal Academy of Arts, and a Newnham College fellow.