Western depictions of women in power from the Ancient Greeks onwards
March 7, 2017 4:47 AM   Subscribe

If the deep cultural structures legitimating women's exclusion are as I have argued, gradualism is likely to take too long for me, thank you very much. We have to be more reflective about what power is, what it is for, and how it is measured. To put it another way, if women aren't perceived to be fully within the structures of power, isn't it power that we need to redefine rather than women?
Women in Power by Mary Beard, also delivered in an extended version as a lecture, and she took questions afterwards. She discussed her essay and modern politics on the Talking Politics podcast (starting at 16:00).
posted by Kattullus (11 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
 
Also blog post.
posted by Leon at 5:12 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]


I really wonder if women had been the writers of plays (and not persecuted for writing freely) whether Athena would have been said to love male supremacy above all things.

I mean really think about the mental gymnastics of giving a divine feminine being a status of power and then saying she doesn't even believe she should have that power? Why was she even being asked to judge the situation? Although one part of me thinks that this is proof that even then there was enough discomfort with women's subordination that it needed to be addressed- and I suspect there were times and places when women really did have greater power in the ancient world and goddess traditions were taken over and used against them.
posted by xarnop at 5:51 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]


I'm suddenly imagining Medusa's many snakes in self-doubting conversation:

"I mean, do you think it's really a good look for us, to turn people to stone?" "I'm not sure that this much power is OK." "Maybe we should just listen to the man with the sword. She *is* a monster, after all."
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:58 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]


Actually, what I think May and Thatcher share - and I'm surprised that Beard doesn't mention it although it's implied in her description of Athena - is the use of "male" power against other women. Thatcher and May perhaps use their fashion choices to "resist" the male template of power, but they don't "resist" in any other way - it's still the same old "let's make sure that women as a class don't have any power, and only exceptional, privileged women can get into the ranks of men".
posted by Frowner at 6:44 AM on March 7 [6 favorites]


"What’s extraordinary is that this beheading remains even now a cultural symbol of opposition to women’s power. Angela Merkel’s features have again and again been superimposed on Caravaggio’s image."

This, from Foreign Policy, might be of interest: Angela Merkel Has a Playbook for Bullies Like Trump: Literally, there’s a five-point plan that she has used to take down macho adversaries her entire career.
Central to Merkel’s demeanor is her steely patience, which makes her impossible to bait. ... “She rose in German politics in a party dominated by loud, West German men. She, an East German woman, watched them very closely to identify strengths and weaknesses, but she never mimicked them.”

Fetscher claims that Merkel has employed this reserve to her advantage again and again. “Merkel is so not an alpha that she’s constantly underestimated,” Fetscher said. “But she’s thinking, observing. She often appears vague, but she has a taste for power. This helps with big-headed people because she isn’t intimidated by them. She’s obviously not one of the boys, nor can men play up to her femininity because she goes for none of that either. She doesn’t play on the same chessboard they do, and that flummoxes them.”
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:02 AM on March 7 [8 favorites]


Thatcher and May perhaps use their fashion choices to "resist" the male template of power, but they don't "resist" in any other way - it's still the same old "let's make sure that women as a class don't have any power, and only exceptional, privileged women can get into the ranks of men".

Having read the article, even this criticism seems unfair -- a standard criticism against women grabbing power is that they're not using it in the "right" ways. Would anyone have held a man to the same standards?
posted by steady-state strawberry at 7:56 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]


To add: She cites Black Lives Matter as a counter example, but (even if intersectional) BLM isn't explicitly construed as a feminist group-- it's even been used against ("white woman") feminism as an example of what women OUGHT to be doing. I'm not sure that women can win, when it comes to activism.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 7:59 AM on March 7


Working class men, gay men and men of color are held to the same standard about getting power and using it to fuck over working class men, gay men and men of color. It's only elite white men who don't get held to that standard, but this is invisible because so many powerful people are elite white men, and because, in fact, elite white men don't fuck over other elite white men - they assist them into power and help keep them there.

I think that the whole question of "why are marginalized people held to a different standard than privileged people" is the wrong question. Privileged people aren't getting the "correct standard" - they're getting away with fucking people over as long as those people are not like them. The "correct standard" is not "fuck you, I've got mine", for one thing, and that's not even the standard that elites are held to. Elites are held to an unspoken standard of solidarity with other elites.
posted by Frowner at 8:18 AM on March 7 [6 favorites]


I think that the whole question of "why are marginalized people held to a different standard than privileged people" is the wrong question.

No, it's not.

It's possible for an action to be wrong and yet for the criticism of that action to be discriminatory. If ten people are involved in covering up a murder and yet only the person of color is charged with a crime, that's discrimination, even though the crime is real.

Similarly, singling out women for somehow failing to behave "appropriately" is sexist when men aren't targeted for the same criticism. Don't give false equivalents here. Cis white men can, at some level, supersede their other issues -- working class men who gain national prominence are (by definition) no longer working class; being gay is increasingly not an outright barrier -- see Thiel. (Hell, men of a certain class have always been able to elide issues associated with their sexuality. James Buchanan was pretty openly gay.) Both of these things complicate a rise to power, but neither prohibit it. Women are always women, no matter where they go or what they do, just as people of color are always people of color.

"Why are marginalized people held to a different standard than privileged people?" is only the wrong question if you believe what you care about is the only thing that matters. In the context of an essay asking why women aren't given access to power, I think it's appropriate to point out both that women who gain power are selectively targeted for criticism and that political movements that emphasize women's rights are similarly singled out.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 8:01 PM on March 7


Well if we're going to say we want all people to be empowered to be just as jerky as those at the top as part of "empowerment" then somehow it seems like we're also kind of agreeing it's understandable those at the top don't care about those below them?

I mean, why should they? Like if the goal is to say "YEAH go ladies, eat the weak just like the rest!" then why are we shaming anyone for saying "Fuck you got mine". Aren't they just doing the right thing?

Why should people in power care about those without it unless we are coming from a platform that people in general should care about those below them? And that is why feminism is often linked with Add to dictionary because otherwise it's just another exercise in white privileged and wealthy women trying to get their from the white men. Which is fine, just don't pretend it's for all women if that's what it is. Not to mention some of the things rich and privileged women are fighting for are literally pushing other women down- like let's say they want cheaper daycare for the middle classes-- but without raising pay for the underclass women who will work in these cheaper day cares.

Sure women can be jerks- yay them, I guess. But if we're celebrating that, let's also celebrate women's rights to fight back against oppression from other women.
posted by xarnop at 12:32 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]


Well if we're going to say we want all people to be empowered to be just as jerky as those at the top as part of "empowerment" then somehow it seems like we're also kind of agreeing it's understandable those at the top don't care about those below them?

I think you're not getting my argument.

To explain:

There's a book by Joanna Russ called _How to Suppress Women's Writing_, which runs through all the ways people have dismissed and diminished the influence of female writers through the centuries. It's excellent, extremely readable, and (sadly) still at work today. But the construct of the book is just a list of ways that people have dismissed female writers (see the list here and, perhaps more importantly, the way it's framed on the cover here), and every single one of them applies to not just women's writing but also to everything else women do.

Up to, and including, politics.

"She made decisions, but look at the decisions she made" is a classic way to dismiss what women have done. It simultaneously erases examples of female figures who have gained political prominence and, tacitly, encourages us to *not* want women in a place of power -- after all, look at the atrocities they've accomplished. Holding any specific group to a higher set of standards than other groups is a form of discrimination, and that's the issue.

As an aside, I'd also point out that your example is a classic case of moving the goalposts -- it's not enough to just want to create affordable childcare, nor to just want to raise the minimum wage and do other policies to help the poor: one has to explicitly express concern about the welfare of child care workers in particular. Again, this is a general issue: if one problematizes every accomplishment in the past few decades -- why do we care about whether or not women can have credit cards in their own name when poor people can't necessarily get them? why should we care about an end to red-lining and segregation when poor people can't buy houses anyway? -- it both disincentives political advocacy and erases any concerns specifically related to a specific minority group, even though those concerns have have widespread ramifications for other groups. (Had the ERA gotten pushed through, I suspect that the politics related to queer rights would be completely different right now.)

I suspect people of color have their own processes of erasure at work, but I think we see some of this same drama involving higher standards being applied to Obama by the far left. Why should we care about his accomplishments (health insurance, saving the US economy, aggressively prosecuting issues associated with discrimination, establishing normal relationships with Cuba, etc.) when he's increased the use of drone strikes and still perpetuated the military industrial complex?

Holding a class of people to higher standards is bigotry.

Anyway, I'm finding it interesting that an article related to women having access to political power has cumulated in people arguing that we shouldn't care whether women have access to that power.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 3:40 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]


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