In Women and Power Beard addresses two fundamental questions: how can women speak AND be heard in the public realm when centuries of cultural tradition have silenced and taught them to be quiet and how can women be powerful?
One issue which really resonated with me was the fact that women have been allowed to speak publicly about some “women’s” issues and on behalf of other women. This concession to women’s speech has been on my mind for some time. As a woman literary critic who promotes the recognition of literature by women authors am I simply occupying a permitted position? Has something which I imagine as part of a political and feminist stance already been neutralised, sanctioned, cordoned off so that serious (male-dominated) literary criticism does not have to listen? What does it mean for me as a critic to write about canonical male authors? Is this complicity, confirming male authority (as if it needed a woman’s voice to do this)? Or, is that the place where I can really make a stance insisting on the right to speak in public? One solution I have put into practice is to place men and women, canonical and non-canonical authors side by side. I continue to think that is an effective strategy – to refuse the categorisation, segregation, even ghettoization of “women’s writing” but is it the best? Are the politics of this strategy sufficiently visible? What alternative approaches might I adopt?
Women and Power is subtitled “A Manifesto” but while it asks “how” at the end of each of the two sections the answers are left tantalisingly underdeveloped. By her own admission, Beard would like to think more about the issues she raises. In relation to women and power in particular Beard raises some interesting questions including “how exactly we might go about re-configuring these notions of ‘power’ that exclude all but a very few women” (p94)? What does it mean to think about “power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession” (p87)? The invitation to think collectively rather than as individuals is also interesting. The book is rich with examples and the one given for how we might rethink power collectively is that of the three women founders of Black Lives Matter who have powered change but whose public profile is not as high as we might expect. My hesitation in embracing this proposal is the same one I have about embracing women only literary prizes. Is there not a real risk that women will create new alternative (power) structures leaving traditional power in male hands? Beard’s own example of the Rwandan parliament seems to suggest that power is slippery, elusive and not within the institutions where it appears to be but in the hands of a small number of individuals. At the moment that the Rwandan women assumed political power in parliament, power moved elsewhere with the same men who had always had it.
Beard takes as a given that the language(s) we use and cultural production inform the way we think and act. I think she is right to do so but it is perhaps also a position that is worth stating over and over again in a context where we are constantly asked to defend the public value of the Humanities and especially Modern Languages.
Beard has become a public intellectual and it is wonderful to see her using the forum she has created to speak out, even while there are those (about whom she also writes) who would wish to silence her. The way she writes is a model for other academics wishing to write for public debate. She shows us a way of speaking that is engaging, informed by her expertise and passion for her subject but also an invitation not to accept the status quo.