International Women’s Day: In Conversation With: Mary Beard

Mary Beard is the author of ‘Women and Power’ and many other works, world renowned classicist, senior academic, Cambridge University lecturer, documentary maker and avid feminist; a force in her male dominated field. 

Having found a love for the classics after studying Classical Civilisation at A Level, I was honoured to be able to sit down with the wonderful Mary Beard and discuss all things classics – particularly classical literature and the women depicted in it. 

There are still pressures on senior academic women that there aren’t in men. You simply have to do more.

Annabel: What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced being a woman in classics?

Mary: That is very hard for me to say easily, as it has changed over my career. When I was an undergraduate in the mid 70s, it was still a very male world. There were plenty of ‘charming’ lecturers who really didn’t take women quite as seriously as men. However, I was extremely grateful to be at a woman’s college which was founded to take women seriously. From that point on, there have been all kinds of conflicting advantages and disadvantages. I have to admit that I was a very conspicuous graduate student (I was a woman, wasn’t I!) and that no doubt led to some advantages, I think. I was also very lucky, I got a full-time lectureship in London after only 2 years of doctoral research…it meant an absolute nightmare finishing my PhD. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. I still remember the exhaustion of having two kids under the age of two, being unable to afford the childcare I had committed to, and pretending (this was so stupid) that I could do it all. Even now…OK everyone would say that I had been very successful, but there are still pressures on senior academic women that there aren’t in men. You simply have to do more. I totally approve of initiatives that demand having at least two women on every committee…but inevitably the burden of that falls on women! Moan over!

Annabel: Is there a particular female character in classical literature that you identify with, and why so?

Mary: Not at all. Indeed, I really think that it is unhelpful to look for women ‘to identify with’ in any literature…least of all classical.

Annabel: Do you feel that the role of women in classical literature was to contribute to the story line as an individual character or were they there purely as a vessel to push along the male narrative? 

Mary: I don’t think I would see it exactly in terms of those alternatives, though I see what you are getting at. For me the bottom line is that 99% of surviving literature is written by men, and we really don’t get more than a tiny glimpse of the woman’s voice. I fear that if you really want a subject where you can tell a woman’s story through her own voice, then classics won’t be for you! That said, Greek and Roman literature is preoccupied with debates about gender. In part I think this is a consequence, direct or indirect, of the oppression of women in classical society: oppressors often spent an enormous amount of cultural energy justifying the oppressions they practise. But whatever the reason, ancient literature is an absolute hotbed of debates around men and women, and we are still the heirs of some of those debates. For example, women’s silencing as I wrote about in Women in Power.

Annabel: How heavily do you think the changing role of women in ancient Greek and Roman society was reflected in the literature over the course of the time periods?

Mary: Well that is hard to say. As a basic rule of thumb, elite women in the Roman world were treated better than  elite women in classical Athens; and you see some traces of that in literary texts. Look, for example, at Petronius’ Satyricon: featuring a Roman banquet where women are prominent participants. But the basic issue of ‘what women are’ remains throughout the classical period; and you might say that it still does.

I really think that it is unhelpful to look for women ‘to identify with’ in any literature…least of all classical

Annabel: Do you think that women in classical literature were an accurate depiction of women of the time – or more of an idealised version?

Mary: Almost all representations are a mixture of the two…and a pretty inextricable one. And when you say idealised, I think you mean idealised in many different forms: perfect. Loyal, destructive, villainous, out of control, temptress…

Annabel: Do you see the depiction of women and attitudes towards women in ancient literature still relevant to a modern day audience?

Mary:  I don’t think that there is a direct relevance with modern issues. But there are plenty of important, indirect ones. Many of the ways we talk about sex and gender go back to classical antiquity, and it is really enlightening to see how that works. I have talked about some of them. But another example would be the Rape of Lucretia. Some of our modern questions of consent and blame go back to how the Romans talked about this story of early Roman ‘history’.

Annabel: How differently would you say a modern audience would view the depiction of particular women in classical literature compared to contemporary audiences; particularly focusing on striking female characters such as Medea or Camilla?

Mary: It is impossible to say…we can see some very likely differences in our reactions to say: Medea. Many modern audiences see her as an abused woman who ultimately committed and suffered the most appalling crime of killing her children. Many ancient audiences would have seen her as a murderous witch.

Ancient literature is an absolute hotbed of debates around men and women, and we are still the heirs of some of those debates

Annabel: What do you think the motivations were of certain classical writers to create powerful/ intelligent female characters? Were they ahead of their time or were they just creating a fantasy?

Mary: We don’t know, for me the idea that they extend the range of what is thinkable about women (fantasy or not) is important.

Annabel: Any closing comments at all?

Mary: I wish everyone in Southampton the best for International Women’s Day. And I do think that we can understand our own assumptions and disagreement better if we look back at classical antiquity. Of course, there are all kinds of other influences on modern British culture, I am very pleased to say; but we do get a lot from our conversation with Greece and Rome and it is important to keep that critical conversation going.

This piece was written to celebrate International Women’s Day 2020.

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