Fall in love with a girl

When you commit to blogging every day for 100 days, it’s pretty bloody obvious when you fail! One thing I learnt this week is that even with the best of intentions, sometimes life gets in the way. This week was a multi-day away trip for work, with long days, friendly colleagues and lots and lots of sunshine (finally, just yay). I kept up a bunch of commitments but some things like blogging I’m afraid fell away. Now back at home, I have to say I missed it and some other elements of my usual daily routine. Without realising we can become little creatures of habit.

That said, a friend said to me tonight that as long as the important things stay true, there is no need to beat ourselves up about the ‘should’. After all we can’t change the past, but actions in the present matter. And in this case, words are action enough.

This week I did manage to devour Mary Beard’s latest book ‘Women and Power: A Manifesto. And I mean devour, on one not so long train ride. I actually had the happy fortune to meet Mary recently, unexpectedly at Houghton Hall in Norfolk visiting the Damien Hirst exhibition which she was filming for her new series of BBC’s Front Row Late. Just great. As is the book.

I have and always will classify myself as a feminist. My mother – who I affectionately christened my ‘trophy mother’ – was a staunch feminist who campaigned vigorously for equal rights, and very deliberately actually equal rights, including better paternity rights. I keep meaning to get myself a matching ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ top.

Over the years I’ve read a lot on feminism, I’ve spoken a bit, I’m a trustee of an amazing charity Young Women’s Trust, I mentor younger women in business and I’m sometimes classed as a ‘female leader’ (which still sits a little strangely). And I’m also a now-rusty amateur classicist, including some fully rusted Ancient Greek, and an on-going love affair with that period. Consider yourself warned to never, ever watch Troy with me; my dad had to ring his handkerchief out after a special screening at the British Museum (and yes I know it’s often considered awful Hollywood blasphemy of one of the best books of all time, but hey, I’m a sucker for Sean Bean and Homer).

So in hindsight very unfairly, whilst I was very much looking forward to reading the book, which was a Christmas present from my mum, I wasn’t so sure I would learn so much more. I was completely wrong.

Beard in her brilliant way brought things to life on how women are portrayed in the public eye that I’m not sure I had ever noticed. And some I know I hadn’t, especially about the public voice of women. Some things of course I had, the completely different way male and female politicians are described or written about. But I hadn’t ever noticed the implication of the phrase ‘breaking through the glass ceiling’ as something that as Beard says “effectively positions women on the outside of power”.

This first reading though (I’m fully intending to re-read it again) I was left thinking about three things, two of which I’ll touch on tonight and the third I’ll save for a later blog.

Firstly, it was her dissection of the goddess Athena:

As for Athena, it is true that in those binary charts of ancient Greek gods and goddesses that appear in modern textbooks (“Zeus, king of the gods; Hera, wife of Zeus”), she appears on the female side. But the crucial thing about her in the ancient context is that she is another of those difficult hybrids. In the Greek sense she is not a woman at all. For a start she’s dressed as a warrior, when fighting was exclusively male work…. Then she’s a virgin, when the raison d’être of the female sex was breeding new citizens. And she herself wasn’t even born of a mother but directly from the head of her father, Zeus. It was almost as if Athena, woman or not, offered a glimpse of an ideal world in which women could not only be kept in their place but dispensed with entirely. The point is simple but important: as far back as we can see in Western history there is a radical separation – real, cultural, and imaginary – between women and power.

Growing up on Greek mythology, I adored Athena. I mean proper girl-crush territory. She was, to me, exactly the girl I wanted to grow up to be. Strong yet soft, independent, powerful, loved and revered. I saw her ‘virginity’ – to be clear as a girl I don’t think I really saw it as virginity, rather that she was a woman defined by and as herself, not through her relation to a man. And given the Greek gods were anthropomorphic, I imagined I could become a woman just like her (though I’m totally fine with being born of my mother, just to be clear). I believed she was a real example of how the ancient Greeks had sowed the seeds of early feminism.

Everything Mary says is of course correct. I read and re-read this passage, wondering how I had failed before now to see it. But at the same time it not quite sitting comfortably with me, against everything I believed before.

Then I read her bit on how some women who have ‘made it’

…. turn the symbols that usually disempower women to their own advantage. Margaret Thatcher seems to have done that with her handbags, so that eventually the most stereotypically female accessory because a verb of political power: as in ‘to handbag”.

Reading that, I then cast my mind back to the most beautiful re-imaging of Athena’s story, which I posted recently, by the poet Nikita Gill in her latest book Wild Embers.

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So like the handbag, I’m turning what the ancient Greek might have meant of Athena into my own meaning, into the book loving Goddess of Wisdom who has both softness and strength, that Nikita Gill so beautifully describes. And I like to think that were Athena ever to be given her own voice, rather than just being spoken of via the words of man, this is her truth that she would choose to tell.

(And P.S. When I read the words fall in love, I don’t think of this as a sexual or romantic love, especially by a man, this for me is the falling in love I have done with the women I have been lucky enough to meet in my life and call my friends who show me a wonderful, special, different world each day.)

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