Book review

Review: Women & Power: A Manifesto – Mary Beard

116 pages | Profile Books | Non-fiction/Essay/Feminist Literature

As a Classical Studies undergraduate, Mary Beard has formed a disproportionately large part of my education both in sixth-form and university. In fact, my dissertation relies heavily on a couple of volumes written by her with two other Classicists, and I make a point of trying to keep up with her public appearances. I have a number of her books on my shelves, and have spent many hours watching the documentaries about Rome and Greece she features in. As such, I think it’s fair to say that I am a massive fan of Beard (and her area of expertise) even though I do disagree with her on any number of political points. Her stance on feminism is not one of these points. The fact that I am a fan of Beard does not consciously influence my review of this short book.

The digest: an essay about the relationship between women and power in the 21st Century in the broadest of terms. This accessible volume serves as a good introduction to what more needs to be done in tackling the issues revolving around women, the patriarchy, and our relationship with power. Supported by Classical and contemporary examples, any modern-minded person will surely find something thought-provoking here.

From the book’s Goodreads page:

Britain’s best known classicist, Mary Beard, is also a committed and vocal feminist. With wry wit she shows how history has treated powerful women. Her examples range from Medusa and Athena to Theresa May and Elizabeth Warren as she explores the cultural underpinnings of misogyny, considering the public voice of women, how we look at women who exercise power, our cultural assumptions about women’s relationship with power, and how powerful women resist being packaged into a male template.

With personal reflections on her own experiences of sexism online and the gendered violence she has endured as a woman in the public eye, Beard asks: If women aren’t perceived to be fully within the structures of power, isn’t it power we need to redefine?”

What did I like?

  • Women & Power: A Manifest was originally created as two separate lectures, and due to this the writing style is incredibly accessible. Nobody will struggle to understand the ideas discussed here, nor will anyone be put off by some sort of aloofness as can often be found in books published by academics.
  • As I alluded to above, the ideas are supported by many examples – both from the modern world and the Classical one. This critical analysis interacts closely with a variety of different issues, and they are expertly illustrated. From Greek myths to the double standards between Trump and Clinton, Beard is careful to explore her ideas in ways which everyone can relate to.
    • Beard’s relative impartiality further works to reinforce her claims. The author doesn’t come off as too liberal or conservative, meaning that her ideas can be absorbed without any sort of trepidation about bias one way or another. Of course, some extreme conservatives argue that feminism or equality is wrong – these people are clearly stupid and frankly will never find themselves reading any sort of review of a volume such as this so I’m not too fussed about saying that.
  • The ideas touched on are easily understood and fair. By this, I mean that the issues are not abstract or overly removed from everyday life in the 21st century. Women are still underrepresented in positions of power, and society, in general, has a bias against the female sex.
  • There are a fair few illustrations (perhaps too many) dotted about the volume and (assuming that Beard herself selected them), the author’s points further reinforced here as well.

What did I not like?

  • The arguments aren’t developed in any great depth. I understand that feminist theory is effectively a never-ending topic, with inexhaustible lines of query, but I was disappointed with the brevity of the arguments Beard puts forward here.
    • This is obviously part of the format of Woman & Power: A Manifestoand I’m not overly keen on deducting marks for it. As a compilation of two (slightly edited) lectures, we can’t expect the Classicist to present much detailed analysis. This in itself doesn’t stop me from wanting it, though, and the afterword here hints that Bear may return with a more developed treatise in the future.
  • There are far too many images in a book of this length. By no means am I against artistic material in books, but it felt very much like they were being used to pad out a very small amount of content.
    • The book actually has a lot less content than you might expect. It is listed as 116 pages, but when you take out the reference pages, afterword, and images, I reckon you’d be left with just enough content to fill maybe three or four sides of A4 paper.
    • A volume of similar length, the excellent Shaking Hands with Death – Terry Pratchett has no images (that I recall), and generally felt like a better finished product. This is personal opinion, though, which might be driven by the fact that I was already familiar with Beard’s ideas as part of my studies.
  • Personally, I would have preferred a more Classics-focused analysis (or even a more in-depth analysis of the imagery used), but I understand that if Beard had done this, then her work would have been less accessible than it currently stands. As such, I have deducted no marks for this.

In conclusion: 4/5. I enjoyed my time reading Women & Power: A Manifesto, but I’ll struggle to recommend this at its retail price right now (about £5 for eBook or hardcover). The content is interesting and thought-provoking, and if you have the money for a copy then, by all means, do pick it up, but had I paid full retail price for it then I would have regretted it. Part of being a student means carefully juggling how much money is spent on certain things, and I could get a nice thick fantasy novel for same price as this small volume. I paid £2 for my copy from a charity shop – and I think at most I’d want to be paying £3-4 (new). It’s a nice little book, but I don’t see myself re-reading it anytime soon.

I would instead direct people towards this video on YouTube, in which Beard presents her ideas in essay form for the London Review of Books. If you enjoy that and would like a written version with nice images, then go ahead and pick up a copy of Women & Power: A Manifesto.

Have you read this volume, or in fact anything else published by Beard? If so, leave a comment 🙂

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