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What History And Fiction Teach Us About Women And Power
Two recent books, one a manifesto by British classicist and Cambridge professor Mary Beard, the other a work of fiction by novelist and game designer Naomi Alderman, address — in different ways — the difficult relationship between women and power.
When are women’s voices heard? When and how do women have influence in public and private spheres?
On the face of it, their messages are starkly at odds. Beard points to a possible future in which we reconceptualize what it means to be powerful, and in so doing create room for women to make a greater difference in the world. Alderman paints a possible future in which women have power — but their power comes with the subversion of the other sex, ultimately no different from the power men wield today.
Yet, in more subtle ways, both books reveal a common truth: that things can change. Looking at the historical and at the hypothetical are both ways to appreciate that the current structures of power are not permanent features of human experience, but structures that we perpetually create and transform.
Beard’s slim but potent volume, Women and Power: A Manifesto, is based on two lectures that she delivered in 2014 and 2017, both focusing on the silencing of women’s voices in the public sphere. Early in the book, Beard recounts the story of a second-century lecturer who asked his audience to consider the following horror:
“An entire community was struck by the following strange affliction: all the men suddenly got female voices, and no male — child or adult — could say anything in a manly way. Would not that seem terrible and harder to bear than any plague?”
Beard tells us that in likening female voices with a plague, the lecturer wasn’t joking. Public speech — and the right to speak — were regarded as defining features of masculinity. To strip men of their manly voices was to strip them of power, a power that was not extended to women.
Beard’s volume draws on ancient roots, but its aim is not to describe a foreign past. In fact, the past she describes is distressingly familiar. In tracing continuities between Medusa and Hillary Clinton, between the rape of Philomela and the trolls who violently threaten outspoken women on Twitter (including the author herself), Beard hopes to reveal “just how deeply embedded in Western culture are the mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously, and that sever them…from the centres of power.”
And yet, her message is ultimately optimistic. “You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male,” she writes. But what you can do — what we must do — is change the structure.
“That means thinking about power differently,” Beard explains. “It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession. What I have in mind is the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually.”
As one example, she points to the three women who founded the Black Lives Matter movement: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Their names are not widely known; by the metric of “public prestige,” they do not have much power. Yet they have been remarkably effective. They are making, and have already made, a difference in the world. They have powered a movement.
Naomi Alderman’s novel The Powerbegins with a premise that recalls the transformation that struck such horror in Beard’s second-century lecturer. But in Alderman’s work of fiction, it is the women who have changed. All over the world, teenage girls are developing an electrostatic ability that allows them to shock and sometimes even control their (potentially male) victims.
The result is a radical shift in power. At the start of the book, a young girl kills her rapist. In Moldova, victims of sexual slavery kill their captors. As the power spreads to younger and older women, it is men who must be fearful in dark alleyways at night.
With women’s greater capacity for physical domination comes greater power in multiple spheres of influence, including politics, religion, and organized crime. But the result is decidedly not a more nurturing and harmonious world. The atrocities remain familiar: corruption, misappropriation, harassment, even rape. It is simply that the victims are men, and the perpetrators women.
In Alderman’s world, women’s acquisition of power doesn’t change power itself. “Power doesn’t care who uses it,” one chapter explains. Later on, two characters, one male and one female, try to make sense of the woman and man who have wronged them. “Why did they do it?” they ask themselves. “Because they could,” is the answer they give. “That is the only answer there ever is,” we’re told.
The transformation in power that Beard envisions is not the one realized in Alderman’s future world. In the world of The Power, power remains an attribute of individuals, something one has. Yet the mastery of Alderman’s novel is in the conceptual flexibility that it reveals.
Late in the book, a character explains that “sometimes a bloke is better at that than a woman — less threatening; they’re better at diplomacy.” And by that point in the book we understand — of course they are, women are too strong, too prone to aggression. “Have you thought about the evolutionary psychology of it?” asks a woman writing many years later, when women’s electrostatic power has become a familiar fact of life. “Women — with babies to protect from harm — have had to become aggressive and violent.” It makes perfect sense. In the course of the book, Alderman has changed how we think about masculinity, femininity, and the trappings of power.
In their different ways — one historical, one hypothetical — Beard and Alderman both bring out the ways in which women today lack power, and they both point to a different future. Beard tells us that we must rework the power structures coded as male; Alderman shows us the problems that come from that kind of power, even if women could have it. But both books ultimately hint at the possibility of change — Beard by offering a new concept of power; Alderman by showing us that our concepts are indeed capable of change.
Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo