Mary Beard has become something of a household name over recent years; whether we know her from her television appearances, books, or lectures, she is undoubtedly one of the most influential contemporary figures in the world of classics. As a woman, one could argue that this is quite an achievement, especially as the humanities subjects are becoming increasingly ‘left out’ of our current society – and this need for more emphasis on creativity, diversity, and the humanities themselves was one of the most prominent recurring themes discussed by Beard during her visit to UEA on the 7th November 2019.
I myself am a creative writer, literary enthusiast, and a woman, and as such Mary Beard’s story was empowering and inspirational on a very personal level. Despite the ingrained sexism that she herself faced as a university student, Beard has been undeniably successful, now finding herself in a position where she can publicly question the misogynistic ideals that have historically plagued society, thus encouraging and empowering others to do the same.
Perhaps one of her most interesting points is the idea that political change needs to be mirrored by social change, as despite the gradual improvements in law in favour of women and minority groups being treated equally to their more privileged counterparts, the language we use, and our history itself, means that there is still a long way to go before true equality is achieved. Beard reflects on how, when studying both classics, the history of language, and the course of history itself. It becomes clear that the Western world has been formulated upon an “embedded” inequality, meaning that despite our best attempts, we tend to “inherit” ideas that are of an inherently sexist nature. This idea was greeted with a hum of agreement that echoed throughout the lecture theatre; something that fills me, at least, with great hopes for the future. A crowd diverse in age and gender displaying this extent of warmth, acceptance, and progressiveness is something that I believe should always be welcomed in academic circles; it goes a long way in furthering the much-needed diversity in university studies.
As such, the audience left with brains buzzing and brimming with new classical, historical, and political ideas, “evaluating” their privileges and place in history and society. Though Beard is obviously – and correctly – renowned as a highly intelligent woman, the conversation was thought-provoking to a greater extent than I, already anticipating a very enjoyable evening, had expected. Overall, it was an utterly enlightening conversation to experience and witness, topped off only by the pleasure of meeting Beard herself at the on-campus Waterstones following the main event.
Whenever I am greeted with the opportunity to meet the academic or literary figures, I admire the most, anxiety tends to overwhelm me to some extent, but the proceedings were far less stressful than I feared. Events like this create a sense of community, putting one entirely at ease – and Mary Beard herself was as charismatic and kind as the television has always presented her to be, speaking at length to each individual in the very large queue that was snaking around and across an entire floor of the shop.
Ultimately, this evening was a pleasure and a success, and certainly an event that I shall treasure for a long while to come!
The Literary Festival continues on the 13th of November with Elizabeth Strout.