Dame Mary Beard – Always Inspirational

Mary Beard, photo by Geoffrey Swaine, courtesy Daily Mail

If you’ve never heard of Mary Beard (where have you been?) here’s a quick catch up from her Wikipedia entry:

Dame Winifred Mary Beard, DBE, FSA, FBA is an English scholar and classicist. The New Yorker characterises her as “learned but accessible”. Beard is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Newnham College, and Royal Academy of Arts Professor of Ancient Literature.She is the Classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement, where she also writes a regular blog, “A Don’s Life”. Her frequent media appearances and sometimes controversial public statements have led to her being described as “Britain’s best-known classicist.”

It’s been a while since my last interview with Mary Beard, February 2013 in fact. There have been some significant changes in that time, not least with Mary becoming a well known and much loved public figure. In 2013 she had just received an OBE from the Queen. In 2018, most fittingly in this centenary year of women’s suffrage, Mary was made a Dame by the Queen and professed herself delighted at the honour. She is an incredibly busy woman but still managed to find some time to answer a few questions for Changing People, for which many thanks, Mary.

Of her dame hood she told the press:

“No-one works in a vacuum. I have been at Cambridge [teaching] since 1984. For me it has been fantastically supportive and my college, Newnham, has also really stuck up for women having an academic career.

At the suggestion she was now officially a national treasure, she joked: “I think I am a national enemy to some people.” Well, not on the pages of this blog as a quick search of her name will show. Nothing but admiration here.

Jane: Mary, huge congratulations on becoming a Dame Commander of the British Empire, you join an illustrious list of women. Do you think things have changed much over the last 4 to 5 years in respect of women’s voices being heard? What do you think about movements like #MeToo? Do you think it marks a sea change in the chances of us seeing gender equality in our lifetimes?
Mary: I hope it will, but it’s a bit early to say. It is quite hard to convert a hashtag into real change. We will have to wait a bit to discover whether this is a real step to equality (as I hope)…or a flash in the pan.

Mary, I mentioned that you are a well loved public figure, which you are indeed. Hordes of admirers all over the globe. Being a well known woman in today’s world brings some downsides, too. We first spoke because I was incensed about a particular journalist disparaging you because of your age and long grey hair. (Femageism is alive and well.) That seems pretty tame in relation to some of the comments you have since received on social media. I am a huge admirer of the way you refuse to be cowed, and how you choose to engage with your detractors. What’s your philosophy on that, and what advice would you give to anyone being trolled on line?
I think that everyone has to find whatever solution they are comfortable with on social media. There is no single right answer. My approach is to do what I would do ‘in real time’. That is: report comments to the police if they are criminal (death threats are a crime… you have no choice but the treat them as such); ignore some (life is short); respond to some by saying words to the effect of ‘Sorry that really is a bit offensive, can you take it down’ (you’d be surprised how often that works!)

When we last spoke I also asked you if you’d been under any pressure to get ‘made over’. Recently I saw you as the cover on Stylist magazine and if I’m not mistaken you had been ‘made over’. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
No, in fact that was the condition. They brushed my hair slightly differently and may have put some powder on for the lights. But Stylist is rather good on real women! And that was me (with one extra top from the Cambridge dress shop I go to).

My mistake. You were just looking gorgeous without any artificial aids! In the same vein, with tongue firmly in cheek, at what age do you think it appropriate for women to wear silver trainers? ;>)
Mary: Whenever she fancies.
In case you missed it Mary caused a ‘minor media stir’ by wearing silver trainers for her last Civilisations programme, sparking debate once again about age appropriate clothing. Sigh…

Your TV career is really taking off. (Front Row, Civilisations, to name but two recent programmes). How do you balance the two, academia and media work?  Do your University colleagues give as much kudos to producing an excellent TV programme as to an academic paper?
The bottom line is that I am an academic, and when my media popularity has passed (as it will) that is what I will still be. And in the end my colleagues and I would agree that academic papers are more durable than tv programmes. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make tv programmes though. They contribute in different ways and, lets be honest, reach many more people.

I was listening to an academic talking about the lack of senior women in Economics. She spoke of the demands placed on senior women in the field to appear on panels, conferences etc so that these were gender balanced. The point she was making was this – as there were so few of them compared to the men, they had to give up a disproportionately large amount of their time to do this, thereby disadvantaging themselves in terms of doing their own research, an important part of getting promotion. It seems like an academic Catch 22; by helping other women they were not helping themselves, but who would say no to such requests? Does this happen in the Classics?
That Catch 22 is everywhere. And I really don’t know what you do about it. If we are successful in getting more women into the profession, it will eventually pass … though there will have been victims along the way.

If you could introduce one piece of legislation to advance the cause of equality, what would it be?
For me, legislation is important, but not in the west THE most important thing now (though abortion rights in Northern Ireland and elsewhere are pressing). What we really have to change are our unthought out assumptions about women’s roles…and as I wrote in my book, how we see women in power.

Finally Mary, who is/was your role model? Who inspires and motivates you?
I don’t think I have a single role model (though admire many women and men). I get up in the morning and just try to be me.

Mary, long may you go on being you, and thank you so much.

If you’d like to read some other blog posts about Mary Beard click on any of the links below:

Mary Beard is in Lego!

Female Power by Mary Beard

Mary Beard for PM?

Plus, check out this video on Unconscious Bias.

Changing People licences experienced trainers to deliver its RenewYou programme for women.

Read more about it here.


Posted on September 12th, 2018 by

Leave a Reply

Jane's Book

Paperback or Electronic copy

Free Updates
Simply fill in your details below to get regular updates in your in box. Your details will not be shared – ever.

Connect with me
facebook twitter google+ linkedin RSS