You’ve got to feel a bit sorry for Mary Beard. Everywhere she looks she sees men, and every time they are plotting against and manipulating women. It must be exhausting to be so caught up in insecurity and paranoia.
The classical historian told an audience at the recent Cheltenham Literature Festival that women in power are set up to fail. This apparently happens so that men can come in later and perform a rescue mission. Professor Beard told her no doubt rapt audience: ‘There is a pattern in which women are useful to men temporarily in positions of power so they can make a mess of it and men can come in on their white chargers.’ What an extraordinary analysis from a famous feminist. She seems to be saying that women get into the top jobs only when men let them, which is to say when the top job is a poisoned chalice and it’s all going to end in tears: women being emotional when the going gets tough. I thought that wasn’t supposed to be the narrative.
Professor Beard herself was emotional earlier this year in another instance when she lost the plot; she had bizarrely suggested that sexual exploitation by male aid workers of poor women in disaster zones was understandable given the collapse of ‘civilised values’ in such regions. The backlash against her incomprehensible comments, saying they were racist, led to her posting on social media a picture of herself crying. Did some aid agency boss (a bloke?) set up Professor Beard herself, a woman with power in a top academic job, to come out with this awful rubbish just so that she could fail in her message? Get taken down a peg or two? Did he ride in later on a white charger to comfort her and say ‘Don’t worry, here’s a hankie, I know what you meant.’ Honestly. Where does one start?
Well, you could tap ‘Female World Leaders’ into Wikipedia and see what comes up. It’s a good list, it’s a long list and it includes names described variously as heads of state, heads of government, prime ministers, presidents. Some of them are gone, or at least gone from office: Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Corazon Aquino, Mary Robinson, Julia Gillard, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Some are present incumbents of highest office: Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, Erna Solberg, Dalia Grybauskaite. I wonder if they used to think, or are thinking now when they get to their desks in the morning, that the right swines must have done it on purpose because there were choppy waters to get through, because it was all looking as if it might go pear-shaped whatever one did. Or did they just get on with the leadership job in hand and not waste time fretting that it might not have been talent and effort that had brought them the chance to shape things, to lead? I like to hope the latter.
Among those to whom Professor Beard refers is Theresa May, admiring her ‘doggedness’, the ‘way she is not clubbable’, ‘the way she has put distance between her and Boris’. She goes on to hedge her bets with the woman leader-as-fall-guy theory, claiming: ‘Part of me thinks she has been set up to fail, they needed a female leader . . . to let one of them come in later to rescue her.’ How big a part of her thinks this? Ten per cent? Ninety per cent? Does she think it or not? Prefacing an opinion you know is going to make news (professorial pulling power at a literary festival) with ‘Part of me thinks’ is a way of saying you don’t know what you think, that you’re being indecisive, and that you want it both ways. That you don’t want to fail in your predictions. It’s a safety net. Just as saying that women leaders are set up to fail by men is a safety net that strong women don’t need. Its position is that if women leaders make a hash of things, it’s essentially because they were dupes who couldn’t see trouble coming. Surprising that a high-profile feminist would want to buy into this line of victimhood. I suppose that’s the narrative though. Professor Beard sits on the fence again when she admits that it will take time to see if this misogynist pattern is repeated with May.
There is then a diverting reference to those fabulous stories from the ancient world. Professor Beard says the Greek myth about Medusa has been used many times – as in the Trump campaign against Hillary Clinton – to put down women in power, complaining there ‘is hardly a woman politician in the world who has not been compared to Medusa, even Theresa May. An article in the Police Gazette called [her] the Medusa of Maidenhead’. Far be it from me to call into question the classical learning of the Police Gazette staff, and their understanding of the Gorgon sister who had snake locks, vibrating tongues, enormous teeth and an ability to turn castration-fearing males to stone. However, I wouldn’t mind betting they were simply going for a bit of alliteration around the image of female power rather than predicting it was all going to end for May with blood on the carpet. The fashion house Versace uses the Medusa image too, preferring to see it in terms of beauty, art and philosophy.
Anyway, I thought it was a woman, not a bloke, who set Medusa up. Wasn’t it Athena who punished the once-beautiful Medusa, by giving her the hideous appearance, those loathsome snakes for tresses? And this was for having been raped in the temple by Poseidon. Lots of stories, lots of detail and complicated twists, lots of versions, lots of interpretations – that’s the thing with Greek mythology. There is never just one version. Let’s be alert to modern myths too: in this case, that if a powerful woman couldn’t succeed, it’s because wily men wouldn’t let her. There might just be another reading. If a man can fail because he simply wasn’t up to it, then a woman has to be allowed to fail for the same reason. Do we want equality or not?