Women and Power



‘If women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power we need to redefine rather than women?’

Mary Beard


According to tradition, the Roman Republic began with the rape of Lucretia, the daughter of a prefect of Rome. Waiting in her estate for her husband, away at war, another man, Tarquin, the son of the king, entered her chamber at night. He gave her a choice. That he would forcibly engage with her, compromising her body, or that he would kill her and one of her slaves, and leave their bodies together, claiming that he had discovered a misdeed. She chose the former. She knew that to be seen fornicating with slaves would be a fate worse than death. Her ignominy suffered, she reported the act to her father in Rome, and as she did so, killed herself with a knife. In the Classical antiquity, to be raped was a crime of two perpetrators – the rapist, and the victim.

The outraged prefects of Rome supposedly carried her body to the Forum, and demanded restitution from the King. The result was a civil war with the nobility of Rome against the Etruscan monarchy who controlled the state. They were duly overthrown, and the Roman republic began in earnest at some point in the late sixth century BC.

The historical account is not settled on the founding of the Republic. The story of Lucretia was penned long after the event was supposed to have taken place, so it is not a reputable source for the events – much like Homer’s Iliad is not a history of the Trojan War. These collisions of myth and reality, like in so many Classical accounts of history, don’t tell us a great deal about the founding of the Republic. But the story is an extremely important part of the puzzle of Rome, as it is an insight into the development of the Roman psyche. The path of determination (and eventually, Empire) began with the desecration of virtue – which Lucretia represented – and the vengeance enacted on behalf of that suffering. The virtue of the state began with the desire to protect something powerless, voiceless and feeble. She, in all her various forms, was a beacon for the necessarily defensible heart of the Republic – something for which all the efforts of manly statecraft and warfare were expended.


Detail from Titian’s version of events, 1571. She is allowed to show nothing but frailty, not so much fighting back than acquiescing in a fit of terror


It is not surprising that the Western world came to venerate the Greek and Roman civilization. Even to those who have never read a myth, the names of the champions and the gods linger, and populate the general imagination. The English literary canon, which for most people begins with Shakespeare, is a wide collection of borrowed plots and stories from a time long passed. All the major lessons of Western history are derived from the period. And in many countries – I think in particular of Australia – the antiquity presents an historical narrative more powerful than our own. Mary Beard structures her argument in Women and Power (Profile Books, 2017) to account for such an obsession; and one that is typically dominated by its men.

Mary Beard is no stranger to imperious men, and grew up in a world that was not made for women to succeed. A recipient of the prestigious Wolfson Prize for history, and a Cambridge PhD in 1982, she is no position to be lectured on any subject of which she is familiar. But in her public career, she has suffered exactly that. Those who take to Twitter are particularly fond of discounting her scholarly merit, which should be absurd. She has been criticized for her appearance, and frequently receives death threats from her loyal opponents. But to emerge, unscathed, from a tertiary education in history, and to begin teaching it soon after, is the stuff of more than just a formidable woman – it is the stuff of public veneration; Mary is an English national treasure, and has decided to use her position in the most dignified manner possible.

Women and Power, a short book of a hundred small pages, is nothing short of essential, and should be made required reading. Based on two lectures she gave as part of the London Review of Books lecture series, the book is as concise as it is pointed. One can read it in a single sitting. It needn’t even be a particularly long sitting – the ferocious assuredness with which she writes is a pleasure to behold. There is no diluting her message, and no casement of fury with which to conceal a series of less salient, oft repeated, points. Mary was educated in a man’s world of arrogance, certitude and entitlement, and does not shy away from her subject. She is a Classicist, working in the traditionally eminent domain of men. A classicist of Rome in particular; that most venerated society of masculine virtue, whose deeds informed the construction of the English imagination. The endurance of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is testament to that.

I shall try to speak as little as I can on the substance of this book. Being a manifesto, it is not necessary to interpret the intention of the work, as it is hardly opaque. Although I would argue it is a work of literature, and a most important work of feminism produced this century, it is primarily the work of an historian; one who has set about unselfconsciously dissecting the nature of power, and succeeded magnificently. The book is small, accessible, and striking in composition. It reminds one of the potency of a pamphlet, the sort that might once have started a revolution. The sight of its cover might even inspire confidence that there was a stronger person at the other end of it. I think it is especially important that men read it; even those who would consider themselves proper, somehow, or versed in the important lessons of feminism. I do not exclude myself from that sentiment.


Edward Gibbon, painted by Henry Walton in 1773, pictured here not once being criticized for his appearance


Nothing less than the entire political apparatus of the Western World is the subject of this book. Mary is not looking for a soft target, or a selective reading of historical possibility, set around the deeds of a few women in an otherwise well known event. Those histories will continue to emerge, and are increasingly important. But they are like firecrackers thrown at a great dam. The world does not belong to men because it belongs to men; it belongs to them because it was built that way, and must be rebuilt, so that it harbours no structural exclusion. It will not be possible to retain the hegemony of the world; the status quo will need to be upended, and this will mean that a great many men, many of whom are not the most qualified in their field, will need to accept this order.

Mary Beard understands what is at stake. The true liberation does not rest on the hinges of every little infraction. It begins at the top, and cannot exist until the vagabond minds of the arrogant boy’s club are unseated from the annals of history, and given over their rightful place – a very sad little cabal, of sound and fury, so to speak, signifying nothing; where they might perhaps read the exploits of Jordan Belfort in a small, crowded room forever.

Little else need be said. The book is essential.



Martin Quinn








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