Reclaiming language in an interview with Mary Beard


Not your conventional Classics professor, Mary Beard is known for being a grey-haired feminist and proud. She writes a blog called ‘A Don’s Life’ and is not afraid of those who label her as long as they are prepared for a stand off if she does not agree.

Classics and gender equality might not be a natural fit but Ms Beard speaks out about how classical literature enforces a rhetoric of misogyny, “which we can rhetorically outsmart.” Beard campaigns for women to reclaim language and fight against the silencing in the classical world and beyond. “That’s not impossible,” she reinforces when questioned, “look at the reclamation of the word ‘queer’ in my lifetime.” The professor continues, “we can also make rhetoric look very silly.”

Not only does she challenge the attitudes that pervade from canonical texts such as the Odyssey, but she deals with the online world too. Beard has famously spoken out against women being silenced online through male rhetoric. Hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet, Twitter trolls have attacked Beard for her feminist views and her refusal to subscribe to TV looks, instead being real. The slogan, ‘Don’t Feed the Trolls’, is often encouraged. Beard again poses a challenge. She comments “the mantra doesn’t make sense to me. You don’t go into a bar and overhear a group of guys talking loudly about your filthy vagina and think ‘Oh I better turn away and just leave them to it!’” The Internet certainly doesn’t stop Beard holding back then either.

Many contemporary authors have tried to find the female voice in their writing, or write with a gender-free language. Beard’s response to this: “If all female writing was ‘ecriture feminine’, it could be a bit of a nightmare.” The term coined by feminist Hélène Cixous, literally meaning ‘feminine writing’, has been criticized for regarding women as the other or all the same. This is a problem for many, including Beard.

However, when asked to compile an anthology titled ‘Poems that make Grown Women Cry’, the feminist happily agreed. Some may argue that titles such as this and the equivalent for men perpetuate gender binaries and are sexist. Beard defends herself neatly, “it is deeply gendered of course. But I guess I have two justifications for that. Firstly, if some knowing, self-ironising play with sexist rhetoric raises money for amnesty, I can live with that. Secondly I am not sure that I want a world without gender difference – I want a world without power vested in one gender over another.” Beard here strikes a cord with the most radical gender studies arguments; should gender be fluid or abandoned completely? Her stance is clear and she sees difference as interesting. She continues, “the male collection went against gender stereotypes (what, men cry?), the female collection colluded with them. Yet both worked quite well.” As a typical professor, she leaves the reader to conclude what they make of this but opens up ‘gender difference’ as something to be explored, though in no way promoting traditional power dynamics.

Speaking more generally about her role as a professor at Cambridge, Beard argues that the gender divide between humanities and sciences at university “cuts both ways.” “Men get pushed one way and woman another. It matters for two reasons: 1. When people are discouraged from following their talents. 2. When power, money and life chances go with the (usually) male side. I think this has to be addressed long before university.”

Yet in a modern age, where we are surrounded by celebrities refusing to label themselves as feminists, this could prove difficult. Beard finds this baffling. “Most women now have internalised the basic principles of feminism. We need to get them to love the name.” Yet she is optimistic that their rejection of the term is not overly influential. This would mean we could hold out hope that Mary Beard’s ideas of feminism are starting to dominate and help the journey towards gender equality. “We have to stick together on this,” the campaigner herself argues.

Photo: Chris Boland / via 

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