Anatomy of a Speech: The Public Voice of Women – Professor Mary Beard

I decided to write about this speech as my first Anatomy of a Speech post for two reasons. First, it’s a brilliant speech. And secondly, it combines two of my passions: female empowerment and rhetoric. What I love about this speech is the way Professor Beard combines her own academic expertise, her personal experiences of misogyny in the public sphere and her arguments for what needs to change. This could have been a dry, academic and abstract speech. But by combining her expertise, her ideas and linguistic expertise, the speech ends up being enlightening, funny and provocative.

This is a speech about silence: specifically, the historical and continuing silence of women in the public sphere. By relating her own very modern experiences of online abuse to the silence of women in the public sphere more generally, she describes how women’s silence in the public sphere is still a problem – because of history and public abuse. She links the abuse that many women still face, working in male-dominated arenas such as technology and politics, both in their day-to-day working lives and when they speak in public. This silence stops women being the leaders they could be and holds society back.

A Bit of Background

Mary Beard is a well-known professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge. She writes and presents TV programmes about the Ancient World and is classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement, for whom she also writes a blog. She appears as a political and cultural commentator on TV and radio, often discussing about the cultural status of women in both modern and classical times.

Before she gave this speech, she had been subject to vicious, misogynistic online abuse, which she refers to in the speech. As she says:

I receive something we might euphemistically call an ‘inappropriately hostile’ response (that’s to say, more than fair criticism or even fair anger) every time I speak on radio or television.

The speech was broadcast BBC Four on 20th March 2014 and also published as an article in the London Review of Books. The article and a recording of the speech can be found here.

It is a long speech and it would be impossible to dissect the whole piece, so I have stuck to a few areas which I think show how and why this speech works.

The Structure of her Argument 

At nearly an hour, this is a relatively long speech. It concerns a difficult and abstract topic that has no easy answers. In such a case, crafting an argument is never easy. A good way to illustrate the speech’s structure is to look at the beginning, when she sets out her argument, and the end, when she concludes with a call to action, and how they relate to each other.

She starts by indicating the wide scope and depth of her subject – ‘I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature’ – but then immediately narrows it down to a single point – a story. Why does she structure her argument in this way? A story is a good starting point because the scope of her speech is very wide and concerns a complex topic. It illustrates her argument immediately and vividly – ‘But it’s a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere’. She also starts from what she knows. It is her own unique argument on an abstract subject.

After illustrating her argument through the use of a story, she makes her argument personal. The structure of her speech has moved from the widest possible start, to a story and now focusses on ‘what interests me’. Both the story and her own interest in the subject stop the speech becoming boring for the audience. If the speaker can show they’re interested in the argument on a personal level, the audience too is more likely to be interested and follow the argument.

After illustrating her argument in two ways, she states her case fully in the fourth paragraph. She states her argument, again showing its wide scope and complexity, and uses asides to stop the argument becoming too dry and academic. I’m quoting the statement in full to show how you can structure the introduction to a complex argument so that it is authoritative, intelligent and clear.

My aim here – and I acknowledge the irony of my being given the space to address the subject – is to take a long view, a very long view, on the culturally awkward relationship between the voice of women and the public sphere of speech-making, debate and comment: politics in its widest sense, from office committees to the floor of the House.

In fact, this paragraph is the structure of her speech in miniature form. She moves from introducing her ‘aim’, to why she wants to persuade the audience of her argument – I’m hoping that the long view will help us get beyond the simple diagnosis of ‘misogyny’’ – to proposing what she wants the audience to do – ‘if we want to understand – and do something … we have to recognise that it is a bit more complicated’. She does not oversimplify her argument, but by setting out the structure of her whole argument early on, she signals to the audience where she will be taking them. She gives them the map, then leads them through the territory.

Now let’s look at how the concluding few paragraphs relate back to the opening paragraphs.

She introduces her conclusion with a rhetorical question – ‘what’s the practical remedy?’ It is a simple challenge to answer a complex argument. Ask a brain a question and it will immediately start searching for an answer. An audience will immediately pay attention to a question and understand that the speaker is introducing their conclusion.

She then proposes one solution – ‘the ‘androgyne’ route’ – but dismisses it in simple terms. ‘Putting it bluntly, having women pretend to be men may be a quick fix, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.’ Her solution is not an easy one – that ‘we need to think more fundamentally about the rules of our rhetorical operations’. By dismissing the easy action, the ‘quick fix’, she can show that a more difficult action is superior.

She makes this conclusion personal, as she did at the beginning of the speech when she has introduced her challenging argument. ‘My hunch is’ relates back to ‘My aim here’. It is a link between the argument that taking ‘the long view will help us get beyond the simple diagnosis of ‘misogyny’’ and the conclusion of needing ‘to go back to some first principles about the nature of spoken authority’.

She then refers back to the classical authors of her opening paragraphs. ‘Here again we can usefully look to the Greeks and Romans.’ But in her conclusion she notes that ‘some ancient writers were much more reflective than we are about those assumptions: they were subversively aware of what was at stake in them.’ By revealing the nuances of the classical authors’ views at the end of the speech, rather than in the opening, she reveals the nuances of her own conclusions, strengthening her argument. With another ‘particularly bloody anecdote’ she returns to using storytelling to vividly illustrate her argument. The ‘the disconcerting image’ of Fulvia stabbing Marcus Tullius Cicero’s tongue with a hairpin shows ‘one of the defining articles of female adornment, the hairpin, used as a weapon against the very site of the production of male speech – a kind of reverse Philomela’. Here the story serves both her argument, in that it illustrates the ‘resistance’ to a simple narrative that Mary Beard has been trying to avoid, and the structure of her speech, by directly referring back to a story from the beginning of her speech.

In the concluding paragraph she states her case in simple terms. ‘What I’m pointing to here is a critically self-aware ancient tradition’. Note the use of ‘pointing’, rather than, for instance ‘suggesting’ or ‘arguing’. It is a visual term that sets up her nuanced conclusion.

She involves her audience in the action of her conclusion – ‘We should perhaps take our cue from this’; ‘What we need is some old fashioned consciousness-raising’; ‘We need to work that out before we figure out how we modern Penelopes might answer back to our own Telemachuses’. These calls to action relate back to the opening paragraphs, ‘If we want to understand – and do something about’ the silence of women in the public sphere, this is what we should do.


She uses stories through the speech, not just at the beginning and end. They are not stand-alone examples, but each serves to illustrate the particular point she is making. The backbone of the speech is the history of female silence in the public sphere. By showing that at different point in history, stories have reflected this silencing, she reinforces her argument that we are the cultural ‘heirs’ to the ‘tradition of gendered speaking’. The stories reflect the structure of her argument and are not just placed at random to keep the audience interested.

The violent imagery of the stories is also reflected in the modern language of the tweets she receives. She uses this link to reinforce her argument about the cultural legacy of the silencing of women in the public sphere. The use of such violent imagery is also shocking for an audience, which strengths her argument about how important her argument is. It is easy for an audience to make the link between the violent sexual imagery of the classical stories and the language of the tweets she received. ‘I’m going to cut off your head and rape it’ is a particularly shocking example, illustrating the continuing use of violent sexual threats to silence women in the public sphere.


Her expertise and choice of language when scrutinising her subject is authoritative and often abstract. But she weaves in much more colloquial language, often addressing the audience directly – ‘you probably know’; ‘wet-behind-the-ears teenager’; ‘Mum can chat…’; ‘shut up’; ‘my hunch is that…’; ‘putting it bluntly’. By balancing these different kinds of language she sounds both authoritative and familiar: vital if she is to persuade the audience of her argument.

She uses humour in her asides and ironic commentary on the stories she tells. ‘The Miss Triggs’ quote works both visually and aurally, meaning that the audience is more likely to remember it. It is a modern illustration of her argument, a humorous way to get the audience onside and something she can refer back to later in the speech, because it is something the audience can easily remember. She also comments on the shocking (to our modern ears) quotes and stories she uses. For instance when referring Dio, who asks that if men started to speak like women, ”Would not that seem terrible and harder to bear than any plague?’ she comments ‘He wasn’t joking.’ It is short and simple way to show the relevance of her story, its shocking nature and introduce her own voice. She does not tell the audience what they should think, she simply comments on the story and leaves the conclusion up to them.

Using too many abstract nouns is a sure-fire way to lose an audience. But when Mary Beard does use them, they are used to link ideas and move her argument along. She uses abstract nouns to her own advantage by making them her own. For instance, ‘attitudes, prejudices and assumptions are hard-wired into us: not into our brains … but into our culture’. She uses the rule of three, but then uses the more colloquial phrase ‘hard-wired’ and then surprises the audience. ‘Not into our brains’ as the phrase is usually used, but ‘into our culture’.

She uses rhetorical questions to great effect; they lead the audience through the argument and make the speech more personal. For instance, when she says ‘Do those words matter? Of course they do’, she is both stating her argument in simple terms and allowing her individual voice to come through. She is also answering the concerns she knows people may have. And when introducing her conclusion through a rhetorical question, her answer is surprising – ‘What’s the practical remedy? Like most women, I wish I knew’. In this simple phrase, she has acknowledged the limits of her argument, included her audience in her argument and made the speech personal.

Acknowledging the Limits of Your Argument

She also acknowledges the limits of her argument and answers her detractors. For instance, she balances her argument about the link between classical and modern silencing of women – ‘the tradition of gendered speaking … of which we still … the heirs’ with ‘I don’t want to overstate the case’. This allows her to state her case, but in a more balanced and nuanced way. It enriches her speech and strengths her argument.

She argues at that women are only ever asked to speak ‘in support of their own sectional interests’ but then acknowledges the irony of the situation. She is, in a way, arguing against the very thing she is doing – speaking about women and their interests. But by flagging up ‘before someone else does’ her choice of topic and by confessing ‘to being in a niche too’, she shows the audience that she is part of the problem and the solution, just as they are. We are all in it together. The irony of the situation in fact deepens her argument, because this is an unavoidable problem, even for those who seek to remedy it.

The Personal and the Political

This is not an intensely personal speech. She does not start with her own experience of misogyny: the attempts to silence her. More interestingly, she weaves her own experiences into her argument, so that her personal experiences and emotions reflect her argument, rather than the other way around.

‘Speaking personally’. But her personal experiences are ever-present. She was asked to give this speech partly because of her very public experiences with online (and some offline) abuse, which she alludes to in the speech. Her emotions come through in her use of language within the argument.

But by building her argument from her expertise and working towards her personal experiences, she never allows the language of those who targeted her to be centre-stage. She also links the abuse she received to that received by other women. By framing the abuse in a historical cultural context, she denies the abusers the power that they seek. Her speech and her argument come first, just as it should in a speech entitled The Public Voice of Women.

A few articles by Professor Beard:

Ex-slaves of Rome and historians’ snobbery – Times Literary Supplement (TLS) – 29/02/12

Me and Kate: the record straight – TLS – 09/02/14

Mary Beard: why ancient Rome matters to the modern world – the Guardian – 02/10/15

The life-cycle of a blog – TLS – 23/12/15

Life in ruins – TLS – 18/05/16

Trump: when words lose all meaning – TLS – 9/11/16

A few other articles about Professor Beard:

Mary Beard hits back at AA Gill after he brands her ‘too ugly for television’ – the Telegraph – John-Paul Ford Rojas – 24/04/12

Mary Beard: I almost didn’t feel such generic, violent misogyny was about me – Observer – Elizabeth Day — 26/01/13

The Troll Slayer – The New Yorker – Rebecca Mead – 01/09/14

Mary Beard and Her ‘Battle Cry’ Against Internet Trolling – The New York Times – Matthew Schneier – 16/04/16




One comment

  1. […] with action. We have “just listened” for hundreds of years. We have learned already from Mary Beard about the historical cost of women’s silence. And every day, women are still paying the price. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: