Women’s Public Voice: points left out of Mary Beard’s history of speech

Élan Vital 2015-12-22

Bruce recently recommended this essay on the historical public voice of women, by noted classicist Mary Beard.

Beard is a fine and provocative writer; it is good rhetoric.

But I don’t think it gives much insight into historical causes, or ways we can bring about change. Women face deeply gendered and hateful criticism today, particularly online. The argument that this is due to Greco-Roman rhetorical traditions, or the Western literary canon, is unconvincing. I was discouraged by the selection bias in the examples used.

I would love to see a revision of this essay that gets nuances right, and tries to explain changes in the past century based on its arguments.

Left out: + The complexity of women’s voice in Rome, from Fulvia and Livia to Irene of Athens; + Greek admiration of Gorgo, Roman admiration of Zenobia; + Conflicting views of leaders in adjacent cultures (Boudica, Cleopatra, Dido); + The Old Testament (Deborah and Esther come to mind).

Misused for effect: – Ovid: No metamorphs of any gender could speak; Io for one was changed back. – Fulvia: First by describing her as someone’s wife, though she was one of the most powerful figures in Rome; then by framing her hatred of Cicero as a matter of gender.

On a tangent: here are two speeches I love, to lift the spirits. (Both American; I know less about oratory from the rest of the world. Suggestions welcome!):

Frances Wright on global patriotism and change: # Independence Day speech at New Harmony (1828)

Margaret Chase Smith on an issue too great to be obscured by eloquence, thankfully no longer a concern today: # Declaration of Conscience (1950)