Interview: Mary Beard

Ashley Chhibber 3 May 2013

In an event described by the organisers as “the culmination of our year… and a gesture towards next year”, the Beard Society (a new feminist group based in Peterhouse) was able to host its namesake speaker, renowned Classicist and Feminist, Professor Mary Beard.

Talking to a packed Peterhouse Parlour, Professor Beard opened with a description of her own feminist education. With the qualification that the claim was “probably a failure of imagination”, she started by saying: “I actually can’t understand what it would be to be a woman without being a feminist.”

She spoke at length about the “vile” online abuse which she was subjected to after her latest appearance on Question Time, when a discussion on immigration led to a combination of xenophobic and misogynistic attacks and deeply personal comments which had nothing to do with the political question at hand. She also spoke about her education at a single-sex school and her career at Newnham, and said that she believed that girls-only schools and colleges still had a role to play, adding, “I think Newnham could do better in making itself a place where critical issues can be generated.”

On the question of balancing a career and her children, she remembered feeling a “stupid, foolish pride of feeling so knackered… Don’t be a sodding martyr.” She described how a woman hoping to be successful in academia needed to find a way of “making her gender work for her”, but also noted that “women who have to get on have to be collaborators… I’m as much part of the problem as I am part of the solution, that’s just being realistic.”

And her final advice to the group about fighting the fight? “The thing that I found took me longest… you have to find a way of speaking that feels like you.” The event drew to a close, and she was received with thunderous applause. The Beard Society committee, once they’d snapped a few photographs with their guest of honour, were “very optimistic about the future”: “We’re bringing feminism to the unlikely Peterhouse, and it’s being received so well by fellows, by boys and girls, by everyone… Our Bearded forefathers are watching us as we fill the room and go from strength to strength.” Afterwards, Professor Beard was able to give TCS a quick interview:

Let’s start off with the Classical world. What sort of positive female role-models can we find in antiquity? Are there any?

Well, there’s Sappho! And I think the fact that most Classical figures are somehow anti-heroines – we’re not talking about myth here, I mean in history – focuses you to think much more widely about women. The fact that you can either be a lovely mother or abominated… makes you think about what roles were, and are, open.

If you wanted to study the daily lives of women… you would not go into Classics. But if you want to study gender… then Classics is a very good thing to do.

In terms of the Classics Faculty itself, you said earlier, “I look around my faculty and I see that I’m the only female professor”. Other language-based degrees usually have a high female-to-male ratio; do you think there’s a gender gap in Latin provision in schools?

That’s a complicated problem, which relates to the national curriculum, money, and perceptions about where Latin is available. Single-sex private schools aren’t the only ones to offer Latin, and not all of them do offer it. But almost every school which teaches Latin is extraordinary in some way.

In my day there was a big difference between girls’ and boys’ training. When I came up, there were quite a lot of boys who had done Latin since they were seven. There was a sense that some boys – not all, but some – weren’t exactly better at Latin, but they had had longer training. There’s much less of a difference now.

Women do very well in Classics Part II, there’s no significant gender difference. In some years women probably outperform the men in Part II… If we knew what the problem was I think we’d be doing something to solve it.

You spoke a bit about your presence on several appointment committees, but mentioned that you were against the idea of women-only shortlists when it’s a question of someone’s livelihood. How about in politics? On your blog recently you mentioned your plans to vote for Belinda Brooks-Gordon in the council elections, who, if I’m correct, is the only female candidate?

She was the only female candidate, yes, and there’s another meeting going on at this minute about how to get women into politics… It would be disingenuous of me to say that her gender had nothing to do with it, but I don’t vote for a crap woman. It’s a difficult job on the left, and she is doing her job very well.

As a final word, I don’t know if you were aware of this, but Canbridge University Students’ Union recently ran a “Why do I need feminism?” campaign, on King’s Parade. If you were holding up a board, what would it say?

I did see them, actually, and I took some photos and posted about them on twitter; so yes, I was aware of it! My board would say: “I need feminism because I need to learn how to be me and not to be ashamed (and I have!)” Feminism taught me a way to find out how to be me, and that’s a lot more internally important than some of the more measurable things. I had to be able to think that I was me, and could be public and do what I wanted. Sometimes students tell me, “I care about women’s rights, but I’m not a feminist,” and I just want to say, “UP YOURS DARLING”. And you can print that!

Ashley Chhibber