The history of the ‘silencing’ of women and ideas for redefining power

In classical Greek and Roman history oratory was by definition a male pursuit and the deeper male voice a prerequisite. A woman who spoke publicly, if it happened at all, was, by definition, not a woman.

A friend loaned me this book, “Women and Power” by Professor Mary Beard. Writing about the very long history of the silencing of women Professor Beard shares examples in classical literature which describe women who speak publicly only as 1) mouthpieces for “women’s issues” or 2) sympathy eliciting martyrs or, 3) simply unnatural. There was no other construct.

And so, we have a ‘tightrope’ situation (Williams). If women’s voices are only allowed in certain categories any transgression from these norms is seen as entirely incongruous – and they are silenced.

The impact of these classical Greek and Roman ideas on modern western societies (and some indigenous cultures colonised by western societies) is pervasive. Women to dare to speak publicly are brutally attacked online and silenced. Women speaking in parliament have been heckled, drowned out, or had microphones turned off. Women are more likely than men to be spoken over in meetings or have their ideas ignored or usurped.

For thousands of years Western ideas of masculinity, power and public speaking have been defined in terms of one another. And when it comes to silencing women, western culture has had thousands of years of practice. Professor Beard argues that if power inherently excludes women voices, then power itself must be redefined.

Here are five ideas for how power might be redefined.

  • We need old fashioned consciousness-raising about what we mean by the ‘voice of authority’ and how we’ve come to construct it.
  • Instead of treating power as an object to be possessed we can imagine it as an attribute or a verb.
  • We can think, write, teach, research more about the power of followers not just leaders.
  • We can start to associate power with efficacy (getting the job done) instead of linking it with status. Founders of social movements are hardly well-known, high status individuals yet they wield so much power demonstrable from their achievements.
  • Domination vs Dominion: The power that most of us are familiar with is the power of domination or power over others. This kind of power is based on a hierarchy, winner over loser, strong over weak, rich over poor. Underlying this belief is the concept of limitation. Imagine sharing a pie – if my piece gets bigger yours gets smaller. If you get more, then I get less. It creates competition. Those who wield the power of domination need props – money, weapons, status or aggressive body language to maintain their power over others.

Power from within or dominion is based on equality. Rather than being based on a belief in scarcity or limitation, it is based on a belief in abundance. There is plenty enough to go around which results in cooperation rather than competition.

If we can step out of the perceptual framework of domination and into dominion, we can have a whole new way of being in the world. We can feel our emotions and express them without the need to attack others. We can allow for differences of opinion without power struggles.

Although we are very far from working out how to redefine and change the structures of power so that they include women, hopefully, at the very least, having different ways of defining power for ourselves may encourage more women to feel comfortable noticing and owning their power, being powerful, and do something important with it.

For another examination of power check out How power can operate in a workplace


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