In one of the lesser-known episodes of The Odyssey, Odysseus’s wife Penelope tries to speak publicly at a gathering in her home. For a decade, she has been running the household while her husband was lost at sea. And yet, when Penelope tries to speak in front of a group of male guests, her teenage son Telemachus tells her that “speech will be the business of men,” and sends her upstairs to attend to her weaving.
Or, as the ever-salty Mary Beard put it, Penelope’s “really wimpy son Telemachus” says, “Oh, do shut up, Mother. Speech is a man’s matter.”
At the Women in the World Summit on Thursday in New York, Beard, a distinguished professor of classics at Cambridge University, cited the exchange between Telemachus and Penelope as an example of the acute misogyny that permeated the Greek and Roman worlds. “Classical texts constantly want to silence women,” Beard told historian and writer William Dalrymple during a panel titled “Sex and Trolls in Ancient Rome.”
Beard is deeply familiar with the gnarled roots of sexism, which creep back thousands of years. Her prolific output of scholarly work often addresses ancient attitudes toward women — particularly women who dare to speak in public. In 2014, she gave a speech at the British Museum about the endemic silencing of women in ancient Greece and Rome titled “Oh, Do Shut Up Dear.”
Beard asserted during the Summit that the pernicious essence of misogyny — a Greek word — comes through in translation. “What it means is hating women,” she said. “It’s not sexism, it’s not blokeish banter … It’s hating women. And I think it means, more than anything, wanting a world — at least in the imagination — in which women didn’t exist. It’s about the eradication of women.”
The foundational myths of Rome, Beard explained, are steeped in violence against women. In the Rape of the Sabine Women, Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, sanctioned the mass abduction and rape of an entire village of women. The founding of the Roman Republic is sparked by the rape of Lucretia, a virtuous woman. “The basic rule with Rome,” Beard said, “is that every time you get political reform, that is based on — at least in myth — violence against women.”
Beard’s interest in Roman attitudes toward women is not solely historical. Ancient instances of misogyny, Beard told Dalrymple, form a pattern that has been stamped throughout Western history and continues into recent times. “One of the reasons I find the ancient world so engaging is not because of the things I like about it,” she said, “but because it helps us get into the wellsprings of … misogyny that we are still the heirs to.”
“I think [the ancients] help us see why we can’t quite escape [misogyny]” she continued. “Whether it’s Donald Trump thinking women’s excrescences are very nasty, or whether it’s people thinking — even if they don’t say it — that a woman could not be British prime minister or president of the United States … we are still debating some of those questions.”
Beard, a fixture of radio and television in England, is all too familiar with modern iterations of sexism. Since hosting the popular BBC series Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town and Meet the Romans, she has been subjected to a stream of sexist comments that range, as she said, from stupid to hostile to frightening. She has received bomb threats. A Twitter user once told her that he wanted to “cut off [her] head and rape it.” After Beard appeared on the popular British quiz show Question Time and argued that immigrants are not a burden on the local economy, someone created an image of genitalia superimposed on her face and posted it online.
Like the ancient Romans, Beard claimed, the trolls who harass her are disgruntled and unnerved by her insistence on speaking publicly. “What they don’t like about me is that I open my mouth,” she said.
Beard also finds herself the target of ageism. She does not wear makeup on television or dye her hair. These personal choices have made her the subject of mockery, and not just among anonymous trolls. A.A. Gill, the television critic of the London Sunday Times, wrote in a review of Meet the Romans that Beard “really should be kept away from the cameras all together” because of her appearance. Beard shot back with an essay in The Daily Mail, writing that “[t]hroughout Western history there have always been men like Gill who are frightened of smart women who speak their minds.”
“The vast majority of people, when they read that, and when they read my response to it, were actually cheering me on,” Beard told Dalrymple. “I think what was important about it is that it enabled me to say [to Gill] … ‘What you’re doing is you’re looking at a 59-year-old woman. That is what 59-year-old women, who have not had work done, look like.’”
In one notable incident of online trolling, a 20-year-old university student tweeted to Beard: “You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting.”
Beard responded that he should take down his tweet. “Nothing happened,” she recounted to Dalrymple. “Then someone tweeted, ‘I know his mum.’ And it went down.”
The student apologized. Remarkably, she formed a friendship of sorts with him, meeting him for lunch and even writing letters of recommendation for him. “He was a disinhibited, drunk young bloke on a holiday with his mates,” Beard said. “I’ve had some tough times on Twitter, but I’ve concluded that more of the sexism on Twitter is by the disinhibited than it is by the very nasty.”
Rather than abide by the unwritten rules of the Internet, which caution women not to engage with trolls, Beard takes a different approach.
“By and large, I’ve just stood up to the bastards,” she said.
See the entire interview with Mary Beard here.