The Fawcett Society’s latest Sex and Power Index is a reminder that outrage and publicity aren’t enough. The study showed that in the UK, women currently make up just 6% of FTSE 100 CEOs, 16.7% of Supreme Court justices, 17.6% of national newspaper editors, 26% of cabinet ministers and 32% of MPs. I’m experiencing déjà vu. A few times a year, figures like this come out, whether from the UK, US or some international organisation. The women’s marches of the last couple of years and the media frenzy over Harvey Weinstein and #metoo seem to have had little impact when it comes to placing women in positions of power. This is made even more appalling by the fact that over the past decade women have surpassed men in numbers entering higher education – that is, we can no longer say that women aren’t qualified for such positions.
This brings me to Mary Beard, the Cambridge don and television classicist, whose recent book Women and Power: A Manifesto addresses this horrendous imbalance. While she gives some attention to modern examples where women in positions of power are treated differently and more negatively and sexually than their male counterparts – think Hillary Clinton – Beard looks mostly to history and ancient writings for the roots of misogyny and power relationships. She’s a master at relaying such accounts and the book is well worth a read.
But again, I experienced some déjà vu. Other feminist writers have pointed out the historical and institutional oppression of women. Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, to name a few.
I find some solace in the fact that Beard’s book has sold well and comes out at a time when a new generation of feminists is emerging. I do hope these young activists heed the advice on the back of Beard’s manifesto: ‘You can’t easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.’