Mary Beard in New York. Credit Alex Welsh for The New York Times Unique beard styles.
Mary Beard, silver-haired and red-shod, was seated in front of a packed house at Lincoln Center one recent Thursday morning, addressing an annual conference called the Women in t he World Summit.
Ms. Beard, a professor at the University of Cambridge and the author of more than 10 books on the classics and classical era, is an authority on ancient Roman culture, but the line that got the biggest response struck a modern (though by no means exclusively modern) note.
Ms. Beard was recounting her response to a criticism once lobbed at her in print: not of her scholarship, but of her appearance. A few years ago, in response to one of the television documentaries for which she is well known in England, the (male) critic A. A. Gill wrote in The Sunday Times, in London, that she was less fit for a history program than for “The Undateables,” a British reality show for the lovelorn disabled or disfigured.
Time has not mellowed her take.
“When you look at me on the telly, and say she should be on ‘The Undateables,’” she explained, in retelling, to the crowd, “you are looking at a 59-year-old woman. That is what 59-year-old women who have not had work done look like. Get it?” (In fact, Ms. Beard was 57 at the time, but the point stands.)
This, said Tina Brown, the founder of the Women in the World conference (in which The New York Times is an investor), amounted to a “battle cry,” a vindication of one of the rights of woman: to look, even in her 50s, like her unvarnished self.
The crowd — mostly women, for the record — roared. Whoever else may not have gotten it, they did. As Ms. Beard made her way out of the auditorium and out into the morning, attendees stopped her to thank her. “You just brought this great spirit,” one woman said.
That spirit is currently applied to a dual purpose. Ms. Beard, now 61, is a classicist of decades-long standing and a “troll slayer” (as an admiring profile in The New Yorker called her in 2014) of a few years.
She is the author of several books on ancient Rome, including the most recent, “ SPQR,” a doorstopper history that was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement (where she writes a chatty blog ), and a regular contributor to both The London and The New York Review of Books.
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She maintains her professorship at Cambridge and, in April, was awarded the Bodley Medal, the highest honor given by the Bodleian Libraries of Oxford University. In 2013, she was named to the Order of the British Empire for her services to classical scholarship.
But when she began making more-regular TV appearances, on popular documentaries on ancient themes and talking-head political programs, she encountered the response that awaits many women with the temerity to venture into the public arena: “trolling” or online abuse.
As she did with Mr. Gill’s review, she responded, battling back her antagonists and becoming something of a folk hero in the process. Now her engagements often combine her two pursuits, as her talk at Women in the World did: tracing the history of misogyny from the ancient world to today.
“The gloomiest way of describing the ancient world is it is misogyny from A to Z, really,” she said. But even in the present, she added, “we have never escaped a certain male cultural desire for women’s silence.”
The Internet can seem like an echo chamber made to amplify that desire, and in the years since Ms. Beard began taking on her trolls, instances of online harassment against women have continued. (Ms. Beard, now famous for her fight, has largely seen her attackers drop off. But for others on social media, trolling continues, with marquee examples like Gamergate, as well as lower-key, everyday unpleasantness.)
“There’s an awful lot about social media which people feel very frustrated about,” she said. “It claims to be a democratic online world out there, and yet it isn’t.” Misogyny, in her view, is an accessible rhetoric to vent this spleen: “An available means of being nasty,” she said, “of expressing your discontent.”
Ms. Beard is unusually good-humored about many of her adversaries. In one much-publicized instance, she not only commandeered an apology, but has kept in touch with her reformed troll, for whom she now writes letters of reference. (“Oh, Oliver!” she said with apparent affection as his tweets were projected behind her at her conference chat.) She did not, she said, set out to be a hunter of trolls, though she is now often asked to speak on the subject. “I’m making the best of it,” she said.
Much of the criticism of Ms. Beard has focused, as Mr. Gill’s did, on her appearance, and her unusual willingness to be age-appropriate. In fact, and in what may come as a surprise to her detractors, she takes a lively interest in style.
Mary Beard appearing at the Women in the World Summit in the David Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. Credit Alex Welsh for The New York Times
“Barring some sociopaths, probably, there is nobody who doesn’t care about their appearance,” she said. She has no qualms about letting her long hair go naturally gray — nor about tackling the sexist underpinnings of anti-gray bias, recording a radio program, “Glad to be Grey,” for England’s Radio 4 in March.
But she also counts the footwear designer Manolo Blahnik as a friend. She contributed an interview about ancient footwear to his 2015 book, “Fleeting Gestures and Obsessions.” He in return has kept her in the red ribbon-laced flats she wore to the summit.
“She has become somebody who I adore,” Mr. Blahnik said. “She’s one of my favorite people in England. And she’s such a ’60s girl! She’s still faithful to the hairstyle. It’s like Jean Shrimpton, and those girls in the King’s Road. But the Cambridge version.”
She complemented her red shoes for the panel with a canary-yellow coat in a vaguely ’60s style — hardly the “old frump” of an earlier era of British academia, though she had no idea who had designed it. (A peek at the label revealed it was by Bitte Kai Rand, a Danish designer.) On modern fashion, she is more an appreciator than an authority, but she is just as comfortable discoursing on pre-Christian shoes as on trolls.
“One Roman emperor, Heliogabalus, never wore the same pair of shoes twice,” she said, sipping cappuccino at a cafe near Lincoln Center. “That is just the Imelda Marcos story, isn’t it? Then Caligula had slippers with pearls, we imagine, on the soles. He’s literally smashing pearls as he walks. Whether any of this true, God only knows, but those are the tabloid versions.”
Around this time, two women approached Ms. Beard mid-interview to introduce themselves. They were gun violence prevention activists: Sandy Phillips of Jessi’s Message, whose daughter was killed in the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting in 2012, and Donna Dees-Thomases, the founder of the Million Mom March.
“We’ve been excessively trolled with our work,” said Ms. Phillips, who had spoken at the conference the night before as part of panel called Mothers Against Gun Violence. “The same thing that gets said to you gets said to us.”
“I only came to see your presentation today,” Ms. Dees-Thomases said. “I’ve changed my Twitter name many times, and I have a fake Twitter name, too. I tell the trolls to go over there and bother me.”
Ms. Beard has found herself an inspiration to such women, and at a time when trolling seems more widespread, and at ever-higher levels — all the way to the presidential race. Ms. Brown said this year’s Women in the World Summit came after “such a year of misogyny,” and called out Donald J. Trump in particular. “The injection of pure derogatory comments about women throughout has been so ugly,” she said, “and the fact that he seems to have liberated the voices of others to agree.”
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Mr. Trump’s name was aired during in Ms. Beard’s presentation, and she agreed afterward that there are similarities between Mr. Trump’s unfettered commentary and trolling. “You could make a powerful argument that the kind of tropes in Trump’s discourse overlap with the discourse you see in trolling: about women shutting up, about menstruation,” Ms. Beard said.
The issues are serious, and yet her approach remains studied but ever smiling.
“This is exactly what we need more of in American feminism: wry humor,” Ms. Brown said. “The outrage meter is getting out of control.”
“It’s about talking about it,” Ms. Beard said. “It’s not being fazed. It’s about having a laugh about it. A bit of outrage is good, but having your only rhetorical register as outrage is always going to be unsuccessful. You’ve got to vary it. Sometimes, some of the things that sexist men do just deserve to be laughed at.”
She chuckled and issued a directive at any of her more laughable antagonists.
“Go back home to mummy,” she said. “She’ll smack your bottom.”