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Why Mary Beard is our ultimate powerful woman

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Anna Fielding
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Author, academic and TV presenter Mary Beard is Stylist’s unashamed woman crush. We pick her brains…

Mary Beard is an everyday sort of heroine. She occupies public spaces – television screens, bookshop displays and magazine pages – with grey hair and no make-up. She takes on the vilest of internet trolls, arguing back with good grace and sharp intellect. She’s a woman who refuses to play the game of dumbing herself down or dolling herself up. She’s bold and intelligent and funny. She seems unbothered by criticism. We should be able to see many more women like her, but we don’t, so she’s become a heroine.

We’d all like to be a little bit more like Mary. She has many fans. Two Stylist staff were taught classics by her at Cambridge and their eyes light up when they talk about her. Schoolgirls and middle-aged women alike queue at book signings. Writer Megan Beech published a poem called When I Grow Up I Want To Be Mary Beard, describing her as “a classy, classic, classicist; intellectually revered”. The Guardian went with “beloved… by anyone who thinks it’s cool to be smart”, while The New York Times called her “learned but accessible”. Manolo Blahnik keeps her in bright red shoes and describes her as one of his favourite people. “And he is one of mine,” says Beard.

Beard, however, is quite surprised to be on the cover of Stylist. “It’s an unexpected honour,” she says. As an academic, an author and a television presenter, she has – like many of the best teachers and lecturers – a great knack for making complex subjects accessible. The first Beard-fronted episode of Civilisations, a BBC documentary series that she presents alongside historians Simon Schama and David Olusoga, attracted 1.2 million viewers when it aired in March. Her latest book, Women & Power, topped The Sunday Times’ bestseller list. Now she is presenting the new series of BBC arts programme Front Row, which goes out live on Friday nights. The programme’s commissioner, Alice Feinstein, described her as having “fearless intellect, a critical eye and warm wit”.

With the OBE she received in 2013

“It’s great to do television when you’re over 50,” Beard says (she is now 63). “It doesn’t matter so much to you. You already have your definition of who you are. There’s one thing that really annoys me, and that’s when I see myself described as a television historian. And I think, ‘No, I’m not a television historian. I’m a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge who does some telly on the side’. And that is quite different.” Beard has been lecturing in classics since 1979, first at King’s College London, then at Cambridge, introducing year after year of students to the ancient Greeks and Romans. She’s written several books, mostly about the ancient world, but also The Good Working Mother’s Guide, a practical book full of tips published in 1989 when her own two children were small. 

She writes a blog about life as a Cambridge don for The Times Literary Supplement. However, it’s the “telly on the side” stuff that gets her recognised. She appears on our screens talking about gods and emperors and bringing long-destroyed cities back to life, but one of the loudest responses to her work has been, “Why doesn’t she brush her hair?” The late TV critic AA Gill, reviewing her 2012 series Meet The Romans in The Sunday Times, went in hardest, saying Beard “really should be kept away from cameras altogether”.

“In the end it was quite useful,” she recalls. “I remember The Daily Mail were, surprisingly I thought, quite on my side to start with, and I did do an article for them because I thought I’d quite like to talk to people who are much more likely not to like me. I nerved myself to look under the line [on the online version]. I thought the comments would be full of people saying, ‘Well, I think he’s right, she looks like f**king sh*t.’ And there were a few of those.

“But the vast majority of people were saying Gill was really wrong. I thought, ‘Actually, that’s because there are women who look like me.’ When he insulted me, he was insulting millions of women. I looked like what I was, a 55-year-old woman. This is what we look like.”

Beard didn’t intend to end up on television. Following the publication in 2008 of her book on the Roman city of Pompeii, she was talked into it by BBC executive Janice Hadlow. “I wasn’t keen at first,” she says. “One thing I knew was that television – and I was absolutely damn right – is extremely time-consuming. I thought, ‘Do I really want to be sitting around Pompeii while they photograph birds and stuff?’ But Janice was extremely good. She quoted me back extremely accurately and said ‘You’re one of the people who says you don’t see middle-aged, grey-haired women on television and now I’m giving you – a middle-aged, grey-haired woman – the opportunity of making a television programme. Put your money where your mouth is.”

Be part of the solution? “Exactly. And then I found I rather enjoyed it.”

The rise in her profile, particularly after she appears on political programmes such as Question Time, has meant she’s been subjected to a lot of online abuse. Death threats. Rape threats. Pornographic Photoshopping. It flies in the face of conventional online wisdom to engage with these people: ‘don’t feed the trolls’ and ‘don’t read the comments’ are the internet’s versions of ‘don’t walk down a dark alleyway’. Beard, however, believes in taking a stand. Sometimes she does this by shining a light on bad behaviour. When Oliver Rawlings, a 20-year-old student, called her “a filthy old slut” and said “I bet your vagina is disgusting”, she retweeted his comment to her followers. Rawlings got in touch, apologised, and the two went out to lunch. Beard has even provided him with character references for job interviews. She’s received several other apologies from trolls, including one who now gets in touch to check on her when she’s attacked by others.

This sounds very forgiving. But there’s a deeper level of thought at work here. Like the founders of the ancient civilisations she studies, she’s a passionate believer in reasoned public debate. It’s a key part of who she is and how she approaches the world.

“The kind of academic training I had was to follow through arguments and, if something was a misargument, to call it out. To say, ‘That doesn’t mean that, that doesn’t follow on from that.’ So, if somebody says something on Twitter I’m likely to say, ‘No, I don’t agree with you.’ It comes naturally to me now, but it has very strong roots. You don’t have to quarrel personally when you do this. What I think is very strong and striking when you look at Twitter is that the attacks about politics, or anything really, terribly quickly develop into ‘You’re an idiot!’ The fact you disagree with me does not mean that I’m an idiot or you’re an idiot.”

Presenting Civilisations on BBC2 earlier this year

It’s about attacking the argument, not the person?

“Yes, and you know I can be wrong, I might be wrong, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid.”

And perhaps if you talk to one another you might arrive at a different conclusion?

“People get very tribal and I think, ‘Would you want to live in a world where everybody agreed?’ On morals and politics and ethics, we ought to disagree about that. But it’s terribly important to show how you disagree, because that’s what intellectual and public and ethical and moral life is all about. It doesn’t mean devolving into a personal stand-off. You could have a really fierce argument and then go to the pub, because, actually, human relations are not about getting into camps. That, if you’re talking about politics these days, it’s somehow collusive if you talk to the other side. But I feel very uncomfortable about that.”

What is it specifically that makes you uncomfortable?

“It’s the other side of the echo chamber, isn’t it? You know, that ‘the only people I’m going to talk to are people who agree with me’ attitude. You’re just missing out. It’s not that one expects people to always change your mind, but, actually, at a very basic level, you hone your arguments and your position if you speak to people who disagree with you.”

We’re in the conference room of a hotel in Cambridge (“you never visit hotels in the town you live in”). Mary came here from Shropshire as an undergraduate in 1973, left for a brief stint teaching in London after graduation, and returned in 1984 to join the classics faculty. The room we’re in is quite dark, with one small table set up right in the middle.

I feel like I’m about to force you to reveal state secrets.

“It does have that interrogation room quality, doesn’t it?”

Mary is actually a very cheerful interviewee and is happy to give proper consideration to most questions.

Have you always been outspoken?

“It’s hard to know that about yourself, isn’t it? ‘Am I outspoken? Well, I’m me.’ My mum was pretty tough. She was head of a primary school in Telford. She’d never been to university and she’d sort of regretted that, I think, but she put all of her energies and talents into this school and into fighting for the causes there were in education. I wouldn’t say she was outspoken, but she was not bully-able. If she thought something needed to be said, then she’d say it.”

Mary’s mother, standing up for women and girls even when it meant “putting her head on the block”, sounds familiar. Mary has always been keen on “righting the wrongs of the world”.

When you were 18, where did you think you’d be now?

“I had all sorts of mad fantasies, that I mostly recognised as fantasies! One was being a prison governor.”

Blimey, really? What interested you in that?

“I had become, and I can’t remember how, very interested in prison reform and penal policy. And it was a very 18-year-old fantasy about being this reforming prison governor who would not just incarcerate prisoners, but would send them out inspired. And you look back and think, ‘Oh golly, you hadn’t really thought that through’.”

What does a powerful woman look like?

To my mind, Mary looks, mostly, like I expect an academic to look. She’s carrying both a cotton tote bag and a bicycle helmet (shiny and gold, a birthday present from her daughter). These two objects are common enough in certain circles to be the 21st-century equivalent of the blue stockings worn by intellectual Victorian women. Go to any university town, any publishing party, the staffroom of any bookshop, and there will be women carrying tote bags and bicycle helmets. I carry both myself…

We’ve been talking about power and how women are still expected to look a certain way.

“It’s connected to power structures of British and Western culture, and they are, by and large, still power structures which validate men. And they particularly validate senior men in positions of authority who are craggy and probably grey and, in a sense, represent our vision of power… You know, what I thought was really interesting was to realise that, here I am, a female professor, but if I close my eyes and think about what a professor looks like, I still see a bloke.”

It’s not what you see in the mirror.

“Yeah, and that was an eye-opener for me because I thought, ‘God, this is part of the problem, we’re all implicated in this…’ And I do think it’s terribly, terribly important that we all recognise the kind of assumptions we’ve grown up with. Because we don’t. Why do we only use the word ‘whining’ about women? And ‘strident’, you couldn’t possibly talk about a strident man.  And ‘feisty’. You know the only reason you have to be feisty is because you haven’t got any power. The people in authority don’t have to be feisty.”

What does a powerful woman look like?

“Well, that’s the problem. The only vision we have of a woman in power is one that looks slightly like a bloke. You know, the jacket, the Clinton-Merkel trouser suits, probably a slightly brusque haircut. This is not to say it’s wrong or that all powerful women look like this, but the image you have is slightly androgynous. In a way, Theresa May is an exception, but whether she’s really powerful I don’t know. She is an exception, but look how troublesome it’s been for her. Look at the leather trousers.”

And the fuss people make about her kitten heels.

“Now, I like to think, and I’m probably quite wrong, the kitten heels are her way of saying ‘Up yours’. You know, ‘Look! If I f**king want to wear kitten heels, I will! Because I like them!’ I have very little sympathy with her politics, but I like to think she’s found her way of saying ‘up yours’ to the blokes.”

Mary has found her own ways of saying ‘up yours’. Sometimes it’s literal: she told The Guardian that’s exactly what she’d like to say to the men who wrote her off when her career slowed down after having children. Sometimes just being around is enough. People like Mary because she’s good, really good, at what she does. She’s respected for her intelligence, her work ethic, and her ability to connect with people. We’re glad she’s out there, challenging accepted standards, not minding if you don’t agree with her, thinking things through. She’s a woman to look up to. When we grow up we want to be Mary Beard, too. 

Civilisations is available on iPlayer; Front Row Late is on BBC2 on Fridays at 11.05pm

Photography: David Titlow

Fashion: Koulla Sergi