Contrasting Two Books on Women’s Representation

Updated 7 months ago.


I originally wrote the below 2017-12-20, and migrated it over to this site. It’s a comparison of Women & Power by Mary Beard and What Happened by Hillary Clinton. I read them within a month or two of each other — I think they were published around the same time too — and I thought it was more interesting to write about them together than independently.

I go back and forth on whether to edit this, but at time of writing, I haven’t. It’s not that I like it as is — I’d change the voice in parts, make the point it’s trying to get at more structured, and get rid of some overly dramatic language here and there — but for now I’ve decided to leave it as-is. I might edit it in the future. For now, the point’s not that it’s what I’d write today; I’m just preserving some small thing I wrote before, as a representation of how I used to write.


I’ve read two books lately which I find interesting to compare side-by-side in their discussion of women’s power as it has changed — and is changing — as we wade deeper into the waters that are the 21st century.

What Happened by Hillary Clinton is not a book about gender dynamics: it is a book about why she lost the 2016 election. That said, gender dynamics did play a monumental part in that story, and she has plenty to say on the matter. (Perhaps a quarter to a third of the book.)

Clinton isn’t trying to exlore what’s wrong in gender dynamics in her discussion so much as she’s exploring how it influenced her, and the voting population; there’s no central argument to her writing. That doesn’t strip its value at all: the point of the book is to discuss what the current state of affairs in the US, politically and socially, are. To that end, Clinton describes the problems as she could witness them from her vantage point as a prominent politician in a unique position: a successful woman in an otherwise male-dominated leadership.

Clinton’s electoral bid gave her the opportunity to observe the issues women in the USA deal with practically, in their day-to-day. I doubt many people are in a situation to collect the wealth of stories from such a diverse set of people as she was able to during her bid, and her recollection of that inspires her position that political representation of women is critical; that the perception of powerful women is fundamentally broken, on both sides of the gender divide; and that there is a force of resistance to be overcome by the progressive left in addressing issues of diversity.

What she brings to the table is inherantly anecdotal, though this isn’t strictly a flaw: Hillary Clinton is one of a kind, being hindered by bias toward women in her positions as First Lady, Secretary of State, Senator, and Presidential Candidate. Naturally, she has some interesting anecodes, and genuine insight to draw from them. This limitation means that she can diagnose a bundle of symptoms surfacing in the modern political scene — relating to women & minorities and otherwise — but is ill-equipped to identify their causes, nor how to resolve them.

Of course, Clinton’s book is on “what happened”, not “how to fix what happened”. She is describing the current state of affairs, and hoping to show where work needs done in the process. The goal is not indicate what that work is. In this, Hillary Clinton’s What Happened and Mary Beard’s Women & Power share a common goal.

Women & Power succinctly and brilliantly discusses women’s speech — and lack thereof — in classics and medieval & renaissance works, and brings her discussion to more ephemeral topics with Clinton’s own 2016 bid. In about 100 palm-sized pages, one fifth of which are illustrations, she describes the cultural issues pertaining to women being heard, its impact on representation, and how Greco-Roman culture influences our own today.

Her “manifesto” is short but sweet, yet it carries the weight of Clinton’s discussion. Where Clinton draws from a sea of anecdotes evidencing what today’s problems are, Beard draws from a different kind of evidence. Through some key examples from early text and historical context, she reasons a complete argument around not just what today’s issues are, but where their roots lie. So, unlike in What Happened, we can here see some of the root causes which bring the symptoms we see to the surface.

Beard’s knowledge of classics is vital here. Unlike Clinton, her career centers around a vast knowledge, and analytical prowess. By comparison, Hillary Clinton’s career revolves around her ability to understand the plight of the modern american, but not necessarily to analyse it. If she lacks context, her aides and coworkers are on hand to supply it.

I’ll change angle for just a moment. Another benefit afforded to Beard — alongside her depth of knowledge in classics — is that her thoughts were formed through delivering two lectures over many years, which was then distilled down to a compact form. Note that Beard is a Cambridge lecturer, whose job is quite literally to ponder and write about these things. In contrast, Clinton begins her book by discussing the conditions under which it was written: hastily, so as to beat similar works to press; amid a wash of other commitments, as is standard for a busy politician and public figure; filled with emotion, which you’d expect from somebody who was writing about the myriad issues which culminated in her losing the United States’ presidency. Contrasted with Beard’s plodding contemplation of the issue with plenty of literature to draw on, the conditions What Happened was written under simply don’t lend themselves to building well-constructed, succinct meditations.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. An in-depth, properly contextualised discussion cannot be produced by a writer who lacks the time to produce a deep analysis or the knowledge to lend it proper context. While this is hard to come by, it’s also a pretty clear indicator that supporting academic work is vitally important.

Both books succeed in their purposes; putting them side-by-side reveals more about their authors than their contents. With limited time and effort, Clinton can only provide a shopping list of issues to tackle, whereas Beard can offer a thorough investigation of their causes, but the problem here isn’t Clinton or her writing. Both books are products of their writers’ careers and circumstances. So: we need more Beards contributing to the discussion.

This should be obvious by now. Comparing What Happened and Women & Power, we can see that:

  1. Beard is in a position to supply a well-defined, grounded argument (as opposed to a list of observations from anecdote)
  2. Beard can afford to distill her argument down to something compact and approachable — in fact, her success in her career relies on her ability to explain complicated concepts in easily-digestible ways.

Interestingly, reviews of Beard’s book call for it to be longer; I think that’s a mistake. While I’d love to see a longer discussion on the topic from her, perhaps including some potential solutions to the problems she identifies, Women & Power finds its greatest strength in being able to explain what What Happened merely shows in perhaps a quarter of the word count — with pictures.