Mary Beard OBE (congratulations on that honour, Mary) is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Newnham College and she writes for the Times Literary Supplement. As if that weren’t enough, she’s been presenting programmes for the BBC on ancient history, making a potentially unknown and stuffy subject sound brilliantly up to date and fun, and appearing on topical news programmes like Question Time. Stuffy is not a word that describes her.
No stranger to controversy herself she was quick to rebut A.A.Gill when he made disparaging remarks about her appearance suggesting she needed some kind of makeover. “This is what 57 year old women look like, deal with it”. She also made some very pithy comments about men feeling intimidated by intelligent women. (You just know now why I love her!) Her robust defence of older women everywhere earned her much admiration – not least mine.
Jane: Mary, thank you so much for taking time out of your breathtakingly busy schedule to talk with us. You are well known now as a classicist but what did the young Mary think her future career would be? Did academia always beckon?
Mary: No I don’t think it did always beckon honestly. My first recollection is wanting to be a nurse, that soon morphed into wanting to be a brain surgeon! Then it was archaeology, and I suppose I didn’t end up that far from that.
We were both born in 1955 (clearly a vintage year). The 60s and 70s were an interesting time for feminism. Do you remember when you first became aware of gender inequality, when you first began to call yourself a feminist
I went to an all girls school… and my parents were very keen on me having every opportunity there was. It’s odd (and perhaps a bit unreflective of me) that I didn’t really realise that there was active discrimination against women (possibly including me) until I got to university. I read The Female Eunuch and the Second Sex and so forth, but it was all a bit theoretical so far as I was concerned, and much more concerned with body politics and sexuality… not women’s opportunities.
I was at a women’s college in Cambridge, but it was there I discovered that there really were (apparently intelligent) people in the world who just didn’t think women were as smart as men. In some ways that came as a shock, but in other ways I was old enough to deal with it then,
I sometimes hold to a wistful view that sexism is not so rampant in the academic world, (despite being seriously quizzed in an interview at Bath University in 1981 on how I could study and be a mother). Do you think it is an issue? And how do you deal with it?
It is still an issue, but in my experience things have improved hugely since I was a student. I mean when I was a student only 10% of us were female – and there was certainly no such thing as a university nursery. Now about 50% are women …and childcare is really on the agenda.
There is a long way to go (the proportion of senior women in Cambridge is still worrying small), but we shouldn’t forget how far we’ve come. I mean one of the women who taught me in Cambridge always used to remind us that when she had her baby there had been no such thing as maternity leave. What did you do, we asked. You tried to have the baby in the vacation, she said.
One thing that has struck me so forcibly in recent years is how young women often tell me that feminism is not a big issue for them, that equality has been achieved. Have you come across this amongst your students? If so, why do you think this is?
Yes very occasionally ..and I try to get them to reflect a bit harder. I think they confuse legal “equality” with the real thing.
I really don’t want to ask this question as you’ll probably yawn but I also want to know the answer – curiosity won.
You have been subject to criticism about your appearance (natural, healthy and gorgeous would be my description, a woman comfortable in her skin); how have you managed to resist the media and its desire to ‘make you over’? Have you ever been tempted? Has the BBC ever dared mention it?
The BBC have been great … it was clear all along that they were hiring me for my ability (such as it is) to communicate knowledge and enthusiasm about the ancient world. No there has been no make-over talk.
I find it all a bit puzzling. I am quite comfortable with me; I’m 58 and look it fine. And not going for a makeover doesn’t mean one isn’t remotely interested in how one looks. I love that red mac I wore on the programmes, and the gold trainers.
Yes, I loved the red mac too (pictured)!In your television programmes on Ancient Rome you tend to focus on ‘average’ folk and on the lives of women. Is it difficult to find out about women in history? Are their lives well recorded if you know where to look?
No they aren’t well recorded overall, but you do get some very vivid glimpses. I really enjoyed bringing some back into the limelight. One of my special favourites was Allia Potestas, the one who was living with two blokes in a ménage a trois.
Could you countenance being a woman in an ancient Britain? Are there parts of the Roman Empire where it would have been preferable to be female than others? (I loved Bettany Hughes’ series on Divine Women; I never knew any of those facts about women as divine beings. It simply wasn’t taught at school, apart from seeing pictures of Minoan Goddesses with snake hair – a vivid image!)
It would have been absolutely ghastly to be a woman in the ancient world (however rich you were, death in childbirth was an ever present danger). And even those female goddesses were not always as clear an indication of female power as we like to think. Athena may has been a goddess in a way, but she was an extraordinary masculinising hybrid – who, by being born from the head of her father, in a sense wrote off female power.
Latin wasn’t taught in my school but it was in my husband’s and I’ve often envied him the breadth it gives him. Do you think it should be taught again in schools? Come to think of it, I don’t recall seeing Latin in my local evening class list. Would you make it compulsory?
I’m not keen on compulsory! But I think that all kids who want to, no matter how rich they are, should have an opportunity to experience the challenge and the fun of Latin.
What has been your ‘best’ failure?
Oh dear… I think failing my driving test rather often has made me a better driver
If you could have any alternative career what would you choose? And would you take part in Strictly Come Dancing?!
I always wanted to do something serious with prison reform. And no… I don’t like these celeb things. I always said that I was on T.V. because of my expertise, and that was the only reason…so I will do things connected with that (like Jamie’s Dream School), but I’m not (and not wanting to be) a T.V ‘personality’. I’m an academic who does some telly.
Mary, thank you. And on behalf of older women everywhere, keep up the good work, we appreciate it.
Mary has a blog where you can keep up to date with her exploits, not least the latest one concerning her appearance on BBC’s Question Time panel. The link to Mary Beard’s blog is here.
Other posts featuring Mary Beard:
Thinking of expanding your training business? I can help you. To find out more, click here
Posted on February 5th, 2013 by Jane