Scholar Mary Beard doesn’t just encapsulate the public mood, she enlightens it. The champion of the intelligentsia chats to Cate Brown about Bristol, #MeToo, the gender pay gap and ancient bastions of the South West

As far as cultural heroines go, Mary Beard, the classicist don of Cambridge, is an unlikely one. Yet, following the release of her manifesto Women and Power in 2017, Beard has become exactly that, enticing those who would ordinarily shun lectures about the ancient world – indeed, as I queue up to hear her talk at Cheltenham Literature Festival, I find myself surrounded by excitable teenage girls.

This unlikely image is not lost on Beard, who opens with the manifesto’s unexpected success. “It kind of hit the zeitgeist,” she says, referring to Trump’s victory and the #MeToo movement.

Women and Power consolidates two lectures that Beard delivered for the London Review of Books in 2014 and 2017, which trace the silencing of women and their exclusion from power, to the cultural norms and works of ancient civilisations. Implicit is the notion that to understand the present, you have to start with the past. It promotes a purposeful knowledge of antiquity, one that Beard has previously used to debunk a supposed golden era of monoculturalism (she famously had it out with Aaron Banks over the role immigration played in the downfall of the Roman empire).

It’s fostering this understanding which drives Beard, and not “digging up Roman bits of pottery – as interesting as that is,” she adds. Whether it’s explaining Roman territory by carving up a pizza or translating smutty Greek graffiti, Beard makes classics relatable (Pompeii she describes as “a cross between Las Vegas and Brighton”).

Her appeal may have widened a subject perceived by many as the preserve of the elite, but, according to Beard, the world of classics remains tight-knit. “People always think universities are either little islands or that they’re terribly rivalrous. Maybe they are occasionally, but it’s a pretty collaborative world if you study Ancient Greek and Latin,” she tells me – away from her teenage fans. “You can’t afford to be at each other’s throats.”

This collaborative world has decorated Beard with multiple honorary degrees – at home and abroad. But her first came from Bristol in 2012. It was also the first time she had ever attended a graduation ceremony; she was so “aghast at the flummery” that she received her first degree from Cambridge by post.

“…there’s hardly a female politician in the world who’s not been compared to Medusa.”

Writing about her experience at the time (her celebrated blog A Don’s Life has been around since 2006) she noted she was “dead chuffed” – not least because of Bristol’s “distinctively radical” classics department. Quizzing Beard about this now causes her to chuckle in agreement with her words. “Bristol was instrumental in getting the rest of the classical world in this country to think harder about all kinds of theoretical issues that classicists can sometimes leave to one side” – like literary theory, she explains. “They’ve also got a really interesting institute for the study of reception: the history of the classical world in modern culture. It’s one of the things I’m most interested in, so it was a great fit,” she reflects.

As vice president of that institute, Beard’s link to the university has been maintained – alongside her interest in reception. Anyone who has read Women and Power will be familiar with the link Beard forges between the fate of the Greek maiden Medusa and Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 US presidential elections.

Medusa, cursed in punishment for her rape, morphs into a monstrous creature. “The obvious predictable sequel,” says Beard, is “some guy has to come along and cut Medusa’s head off.”

That guy, the hero Perseus, was widely depicted as Trump – the image of a decapitated Clinton brandished on everything from coffee mugs to tote bags. “I was shocked by the domestication of it,” Beard reveals, while noting “there’s hardly a female politician in the world who’s not been compared to Medusa.”

A wider classical understanding, she reasons, would have helped us to recognise and call out the decapitated Clinton image for what it was: “an image of misogyny.”

Confronting uncomfortable truths is an approach Beard endorses more widely, and it’s one of the things she claims to most admire about Bristol. “It has thought about [its role in the] slave trade – started to recognise that, talk about that and display it. For me, I don’t think you should rename every building that’s named after a slave trader, but you do have an obligation to say ‘look, this money; that’s where it came from…’ You have to face up to it and not conceal it.”

Whitewashing history, as Beard sees it, is not only wrong (a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card) but counterproductive. “You can’t give it back. There’s no way you can. But you can make amends for the future by not forgetting. Bristol has been very good at that. You have to tell the story.”

“Bristol was instrumental in getting the rest of the classical world in this country to think harder about all kinds of theoretical issues that classicists can sometimes leave to one side…”

Beard’s interest in the past, then, appears partly constructive; a tool to focus her forward-looking gaze. When conversation turns to #MeToo, though, she’s doubtful about the impact of simply acknowledging previous encounters of sexual abuse, despite feeling “overwhelmingly moved” by the sense of collective female empowerment the movement engendered. “My interest in #MeToo is what’s going to happen next – how do you use the hashtag to mobilise social change?” she muses. Without engaging with this question, and thinking more deeply about what enables abuse to occur, Beard warns the promise of #MeToo may not be realised.

“We have a culture where the gatekeepers of success are men, and you can see that [power] structure might be conducive to these things not just happening, but being accepted,” she says. “If we really want to solve this, we have to say it’s something to do with the power structure.”

There lies the basic premise of Beard’s manifesto: changing the power structure so as to even the playing field. But what does that require? Well, according to her bestseller, it requires a redefinition of power – “thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’) not a possession,” she writes. Thought about in these terms, all the traditional advice dished out to women, advice focused on getting women to change their behaviour to acquire power like men – “become more assertive, wear trousers, do or don’t wear kitten heels, learn how to intervene in a meeting” (I sense she could go on) – is unnecessary.

It’s an idea that is beginning to gain traction, alongside society’s awakening to toxic notions of masculinity (Beard’s response to the proverb ‘big boys don’t cry’ is a heartfelt “why can’t the poor little sod?”) Yet, her claim that her manifesto captured the zeitgeist feels modest to me. She doesn’t just encapsulate the public mood, she enlightens it.

Take the notion that successful women must support one another; the need to ‘help a sister out’. While Beard champions that, she’s also upfront about the extra burden it places on women: “You’d never hear someone say ‘the thing about David Cameron was he didn’t look out for other men.’” These insightful, subtle observations appear throughout Beard’s manifesto, unexpectedly smacking you in the face. They include her concern that the public voice of female politicians is often confined to the plight of women – and not, say, quantitative easing. Even criticisms levelled against Beard – her “whines” about misogyny – reveal something about society’s ease with female authority, she claims.

I tell Beard how perceptive, and darkly comical, I found these observations, and decide to share some of my own anecdotes from a brief stint in the corporate world. “My personal favourite,” I tell her – masking my nervousness that the punchline won’t land – is: “I’m babysitting the kids tonight.” To my relief it goes down well. “That’s a good one! No woman would ever say that,” she laughs.

Behind these semantics, of course, lies a further injustice that I’m keen to get Beard’s take on: the gender pay gap. In Beard’s own workplace women are paid on average 15% less than men (the discrepancy at the University of Bristol is worse, coming in at 16.2%). Few would dispute the unfairness of the imparity exposed by the new reporting obligations, but what’s the solution?

“You’d never hear someone say ‘the thing about David Cameron was he didn’t look out for other men.’”

“That’s an enormous question… I think there’s got to be more active questioning. It’s very easy to say ‘ah that’s because women are in lower paid jobs’ – well that’s the problem, you know? We have to make sure the reasons we give for [disparity] don’t turn into excuses.

“You should look every year at who you’ve promoted and if you’ve only promoted men, you ought to be asking some questions,” suggests Beard – almost reprimanding the imaginary CEO in the room. As for the long term, she anticipates a wholesale shift in attitudes. Just as we would now regard an all-male panel on Question Time as “not just wrong, but really weird,” she says, we will reach the stage where it “seems odd” that women earn less than men.

“It’s about bringing these [issues] into an area in which we notice them and say ‘hey, that’s not right!’” It’s an optimistic outlook. But then much has changed in Beard’s lifetime. As an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge in the early Seventies, Beard was part of a female cohort that accounted for just 10% of the student body; now it’s almost 50%. “That’s in 40 years. The university has been going for 800 years. That’s a revolution,” Beard enthuses. Applying the same logic, I wonder what future generations of women will be saying in 40 years from now. What will they be unable to fathom about today’s world?

“I hope – it would be nice if people didn’t think that things like childcare were women’s issues. Most people agree that childcare is an important provision to be made at work but it’s nevertheless talked about as if it’s a benefit for women. Whereas men are essential in making babies,” she says drily. “So, Sunshine – get stuck in!”

Despite Beard’s reputation for colour and charming frankness, comments like these still come as a surprise. At one point, while articulating her desire to teach only the cleverest students, she asks: “Do you think I want to spend my life teaching thick rich kids?”

Touché. Beard’s interest in ensuring that classics has a foothold in state education appears genuine. But she is most impassioned, and most at home, while talking shop. When I ask her about the Roman history of Bristol and its surrounding regions, she beams.

“If you’re in the South West, the place that really captures everybody’s imagination – and, I think, quite rightly – are the Roman Baths of Bath. Most of what you see is not Roman – it’s 18th century and sometimes 19th-century reconstructions in the kind of image of Rome. But one thing we know is that the baths had a really interesting sanctuary site for the rather weird god of Zor.”

Beard is talking about the Temple of Sulis Minerva, Zor’s romanised name. “It’s one of the most extraordinary sites in the whole of Western Europe,” claims Beard, who lights up when discussing its most celebrated artefacts: curse tablets. Thrown into the holy waters by those seeking revenge, the lead tablets – which date from the 2nd to the 4th century AD – provide “vivid glimpses of real life in Roman Britain,” she explains. “They give you some kind of sense of what people were bothered about. It’s about them, their illnesses – but mostly it’s about theft. About losing your woolly hat.”

While Roman villas are scattered around the country, including Bristol (Kings Weston and Brislington), Beard says it’s almost impossible to know who owned these. “It’s very hard to characterise any one individual. You can only take a guess about what sort of person they were. That’s why the curse tablets are so interesting; even though they belonged to ordinary people, they give you the sense of a real human being.”

It’s this interest in others that surely makes Beard so personable, and so very popular.

Follow Mary on Twitter: @wmarybeard