I just finished reading Mary Beard’s Women and Power: A Manifesto. Although I admire Beard’s work, her ability to make history accessible, and her persistence in the face of blatant misogyny, this is not a manifesto. It is a brief and fascinating account of the problematic relationship between women and power all the way from the Greeks and Romans to Theresa May and Hilary Clinton. But it is not a manifesto. It offers no suggestions for how we might move forward, no fundamental principles around which women might unite, and no call to arms for the men who wish to support us. It simply tells us what we already know: women are screwed.
The systemic and persistent gender problems in academia have been the topic of many a discussion amongst my female colleagues over the last few weeks. We are all facing the same problems, but have no collective voice and no power to create change. When I pointed out some blatant gender discrimination in a recent staff meeting, not one other woman spoke up. But six approached me afterwards to thank me for what I’d said and share their experience of the exact same discrimination. Likewise, when we express our concerns to men in power, each incident is seen as an unfortunate one-off. There is no appreciation of the cumulative effect of these incidents over the course of a career. When I pointed out recently that all but one of the staff teaching on a module I convene are women, a senior male academic told me it was “an accident”. It is no accident. It is the direct result of a system in which women must be team players, but it’s every man for himself.
It was in this context that I eagerly read Women and Power and that several of my colleagues asked if they could borrow it when I was done. But sadly Beard’s book provides no rallying point for me or my academic colleagues. And we’re the privileged ones. White, middle class, PhD-educated, and in continuing, well-paid appointments. There is even less in Beard’s book for our non-academic sisters who make minimum wage cleaning university toilets or providing administrative support, and almost nothing for women whose disadvantage is compounded by their ethnicity, sexuality, or disability.
As the female history teacher in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys says “What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket!” Women and Power is a timely and well-crafted reminder that although a lot has changed for women, much remains the same. A manifesto is exactly what we need, but this ain’t it.