I am the least woke person you’re ever likely to meet. I find the era of ‘rights’ we live in tiring, jaded and leaning towards the dictatorial. And it’s such a shame because rights are, of course, the fundamentals of 21st century Western civilisation. They are ideas we inherited, in very raw form, from our Greco-Roman heritage, refined during the Enlightenment and enshrined in the 20th century.
So as in the past religions made civilisations great – think of the Egyptians or the Mayans – so our freedoms make ours great. Our votes for women, equal rights for all regardless of gender, ethnicity, creed and income, are our own great pyramids. And it is because of these Enlightenment values I make the claim that we are living in the greatest period of human history.
Of course, you know there’s a ‘but’ coming. Here it is. But: is there a point when freedom can itself become authoritarian? It’s not a unique phenomenon. Hitler campaigned for the freedom and rights of the German people. China calls itself the People’s Republic. Castro established his dictatorship so his people can be free from American colonialism.
Now, is there an argument to be made that rights campaigners, in their extremism, are in their small way a dictatorial cult?
The answer to that question is not the point of this article. I do, however, genuinely believe that feminism is being done a disservice today. And feminism, yet again, stripped down to its basic concepts, is a revolutionary and noble ideal. Especially when you read history and understand the desperate plight of women across time and cultures.
Nowadays, feminism is under threat. Not from its more natural enemy, men and machismo (although, yes, all over the world women still are being raped and trafficked by men, a sad state of affairs which I am pessimistic will ever truly be eradicated). Rather it is being assaulted on two novel fronts.
First is the trans rights movement. I remember, not too long ago, when JK Rowling became the latest cancelled celebrity for going out against ads that used the vile phrase ‘people who menstruate’. Now, I’m not a fan of Harry Potter or JK Rowling, but if you want a female role model, she’s not a bad gig, a woman who made millions as an author, surely, is something for anyone to aspire to.
And yet, all that, all her achievements as a human being, were erased and forgotten in an instant because she dared stand up for women!
On the other hand, feminism is being assailed from a more succinct avenue. Social media. Here I’m especially thinking of younger women and girls. Girls who are symbiotically attached to their phones, who spend hours following TikTokers, Youtubers and influencers. People who are vacuous, sexualise themselves and celebrate narcissism the likes of which not even the vain Romans can begin to imagine.
In these arenas, in which I include ‘empowering’ celebrities like Beyonce, Shakira and Rihanna, women are being made into sexual objects not by men, not anymore, but by themselves. They spread the pervasive message that to be a free, independent woman is to be as sexual as you can be. They cover it up with empowering terms like body-positivity and liberation, but it’s just burlesque on a grand scale.
Now of course beauty is important. I’m not saying women shouldn’t be proud of themselves, of their bodies, their looks – as should men. But surely, surely, ask yourself, even if you are the most stunning-looking man or woman on social media: is that all there is to you?
What about your intelligence, your creativity, your learning? Are these values no longer valued in mainstream culture?
Clearly they are. Otherwise a woman like Mary Beard, a classicist by trade, but also an author and broadcaster, would not be as well-known as she is. And well-known she deserves to be! An older woman, indifferent to her looks, unkempt, but a brilliant storyteller, with an all-consuming passion for the classics. She’s hardly the type of woman to be posting selfies of herself on Instagram. She’s no Beyonce. And thank the gods for that!
She is also extremely well-spoken and articulate about the role of women in history. She often says, surprisingly, that she dislikes the Romans and Greeks and that the Romans celebrated rape. Such misogyny is at the root of Western culture; even in the Odyssey, Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, tells his mother, the long-suffering Penelope, to be silent and retreat to her room, which she does.
Here is an intellectual, rational voice that speaks to us about the historical oppression of women, putting women’s rights of the present in their proper context. And I can think of no nobler aim for 21st century feminism. A movement that speaks intelligently, rationally, without easy slogans but great passion.
In a fascinating article on the Guardian, written by Charlotte Higgins called ‘The cult of Mary Beard’, there is a paragraph where Higgins deals with Beard’s own personal history, her time in university in the 70’s and 80’s, a sexually charged time, during which Beard was victim of sexual assault – rape. Despite her traumatic experience, Beard is very calm, very articulate in the way she describes her past.
She doesn’t take away anything from the destructiveness of the era but – and this is crucial – she doesn’t allow herself to be defined by it. Here is the paragraph (and a bit) in full, and I think it is far more worthwhile reading a paragraph like this than watching an episode of Ellen DeGeneres or Oprah Winfrey!
“As an undergraduate, she “went out and got pissed – sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and all that. But I worked really, really hard. I am not of the view that people get firsts effortlessly.” These were different times. She found herself drawn to older, sometimes married, men. “I had relationships with people who were technically in different levels, in positions of power,” she said, “and I am fucking well not having my agency removed from that. You could say: ‘Beard, you are engaged in massive self-deception, you were being exploited within a power structure and you’ve just not seen it.’ But when I look back at the late 1970s and early 80s, that’s not how my relationships with these guys felt. You can accuse me of, and I can never defend myself against, mammoth miscognition.”
She doesn’t feel damaged by scenarios that would plainly be unacceptable today, she said, though “on the other hand you’d have to be blind as a bat to see it didn’t work like that for everybody”. One of the great problems of today, she said, was deciding how far current rules of behaviour could be projected back on the past.”
Whether you’re a man or a woman, do yourself a favour, read her books, listen to her lectures and interviews, let her inculcate you into the classical world, appreciate the value of learning, history, education. Read SPQR, Confronting the Classics, Women and Power: a Manifesto, Pompeii: the Life of a Roman Town and so many others!
And if you have daughters or any young relatives in the family, tell them, here is something noble you can aspire to, something to be proud of, and while you’re at it, stay off fucking TikTok.