Some thoughts following a binge-reading of Mary Beard’s Women & Power
In waging my small war on corporate greed I wield what power I have as a consumer in a capitalist society. I seek out and support women who are speaking their own truths in the face of grotesque opposition, usually from men and usually online.
It was this rage-fuelled opposition that actually alerted me to Mary Beard on Twitter earlier this year when she had the audacity to suggest that humans living in Roman Britain were not all white. She handled her toddler-like tormentors with such grace and steeliness I have been a fan since.
When I saw she had written a book called Women & Power I pre-ordered it from (evil) Amazon and was pleasantly surprised when it arrived. The first lesson Mary Beard taught me was the pleasure in pre-ordering and forgetting.
The book itself is rather short – if you’d like a review of the book I’d recommend this one from The Guardian – and explores the links between the Classical world’s structure of power (#boysclub, obvs) and how it might inform our own power structures. It’s full of quotable bits:
A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition not a woman.
But one idea struck me as particularly relevant to the discussion of fashion as a feminist statement. Or if not explicitly feminist, a statement nonetheless.
Mary Beard highlights examples throughout history of how men place heavy restrictions on women’s public voices, and how they are often silenced through violence. And as I read I realised there is direct relationship between how women’s voices are policed by men and how women’s clothing is policed by men.
It is almost too cliché to mention, but when a woman tries to report a sexual assault she is often asked what she was wearing. As if her clothing had a voice and said, “please grab my ass.”
Young women and girls are forced to attend school wearing what might be the most sexualized uniform ever. And when their male teachers cannot handle the amount of leg showing under their hem-lines it is the girls themselves who are blamed for the thoughts and actions of grown men.
Women working as airline stewards or restaurant servers are still required to wear high-heels at work; a requirement that is proven to be physically harmful.
Every time we get dressed we need to make sure we are walking that fine line between sexy and slutty. Too much skin and men won’t take us seriously. Too covered up and we’re cold bitches.
“Like a girl”
To make this power imbalance even worse, fashion itself is seen as a frivolous pursuit, best left to frivolous women. When a woman takes an interest in fashion she is written off as a “shopaholic”. She is silly and lacks impulse control.
The overlap between men restricting women’s voices and policing their clothing is never more clear than when a powerful man is publically accused of sexual harassment by an average woman. As Mary Beard points out, women must pay a high price for the privilege of a public voice. Usually that price is death. However all the women who have courageously told their #metoo sexual harassment stories have not obviously paid a price.*
It is almost too easy to show you an example from the Daily Mail considering their open hostility towards non-white-male humans. But they do provide such good examples of the terrible cocktail of power over women’s voices and bodies. This white male writer cannot handle the fact that women are speaking and in his desperation he reached for what he would consider real punishment:
There is so much sexism and racism in this headline it is almost too much to bear.
Reclaiming our power
As I have written myself, thankfully fashion and fashionable women seem to be dressing more modestly on their own, without such threats from old white guys. Shockingly we’re covering up in response to the assumption that men are entitled to view our bodies at all times.
I know that I, as a woman, often find power in my clothing. One dress I own makes me feel like a womanly goddess. One pair of jeans makes me feel like a badass rockstar. Anecdotally I can say that all women own pieces that make them feel powerful.
Let’s build our wardrobes with clothing that can speak for us while men are silencing our voices. Whatever kind of outfit makes you feel like a powerful woman, replicate that until your entire wardrobe screams POWER!
Men are losing their vice grip on the entire power structure of our society and Mary Beard asks, “if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?”
*I am aware and know they are in fact paying the price of trolls using the traditional victim-blaming script. However the writers for the Daily Mail don’t see this as punishment at all.