Why do Brits have a problem with clever females?
Mary Beard scandal suggests Britain’s attitude to successful women is ‘broken’
WHY do we have a problem with clever women? Following the furore over Mary Beard, whose appearance on BBC's Question Time caused an online torrent of misogynistic bile, some are questioning if Britain's attitude to intelligent women is broken.
For former Radio 4 newsreader Alice Arnold, many Brits are simply incapable of coping with clever women. She compares the experience of Beard, a classics professor at Cambridge, with the online reaction sparked by her fellow – male - academics David Starkey and Simon Schama.
When Starkey claimed Enoch Powell's racist 'rivers of blood' speech had some truth in it in the wake of the London riots, he caused offence but people argued against his abhorrent viewpoints rather than his appearance, she says. As for fellow TV historian Schama, Arnold writes, she "looked and looked" online but couldn't find anything like the bile directed against Beard.
So why is a clever, funny, woman such as the Newnham classics professor subject to such taunts?
Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism campaign, which catalogues day-to-day abuse faced by women, told The Week it's not just clever women but "women in the public eye full stop" who face taunts.
"Look at the treatment of reality show stars by the Daily Mail, reducing them to pieces of meat and gleefully squawking over an inch of cellulite here or a 'cankle' there - or their cruel comments about airbrushing in Clare Balding's Diva magazine photo shoot," she said.
For famous women, says Bates, we "hold them to standards of beauty and obsessive 'thinness' and dissect them based on looks and sex appeal alone, regardless of what their actual role is" simply because they are in the public eye.
The phenomenon appears to be a particularly British one. According to sociology professor Dr Christine B. Whelan, studies in the US have shown clever women in positions of power are viewed as sexier by men. But back in Blighty, ambitious and clever women tend only to arouse suspicion, with Conde Nast boss Nicholas Coleridge cataloguing the phenomenon in an article for the Daily Mail last year.
"What is it about ambitious women?" Coleridge asked. "Even now, 12 years into the 21st century, those two words used in juxtaposition conjure up something aggressive, ruthless, predatory and scary."
Speaking on Radio 4's Woman's Hour yesterday, Beard said she thought other women who don't share her "thick skin" feel "crushed" when they receive the sort of abuse she suffered
But why should they be abused at all, especially about their looks? Bates believes men tend to be "afforded the luxury of being appraised and discussed largely based on their actual role" rather than their physical appearance.
For Arnold, it's time for women everywhere – however funny, serious, pretty or plain - to fight back against "sexist abuse and bullying".
"It must not remain hidden. We must shout about it… and shout loudly," she said. "We can't close the social media door now that it has been opened and we need to draw attention to it."