~ Posted by Kassia St Clair, January 29th 2012

Mary BeardMary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University, classics editor at the Times Literary Supplement and the writer and presenter of "Meet the Romans", recently appeared on "Question Time". One issue that the panel discussed was immigration.

Some people disliked Professor Beard's views on this subject (and, by extension, Professor Beard herself) so much that they started posting bullying and abusive remarks about her online. Her husband and children were also targeted and photos were posted that superimposed Beard’s eyes and glasses on vaginas. As Professor Beard wrote on her blog for the TLS, "the misogyny here is truly gobsmacking". The worst site has now been taken down, but as she has pointed out, these photos and comments may now show up when you Google her name.

There's an argument that complaining about this is a bad idea. In her Daily Telegraph blog Cristina Odone was dismissive: "Come on, Mary. Women in public arenas get a lot of flak—they always have…A woman who sticks her head above the parapet…is asking for brickbats and (some) bouquets. If she doesn’t have the stomach for it, she should stick to lecturing undergrads." On Twitter others were, of course, blunter—"Grow a Pair, Mary." Someone tweeting as the 18th-century writer Mary Wollstonecraft pointed out: "Twas ever thus, when women express an opinion. I was 'a hyena in petticoats'."  

What is new is how intrusive this abuse has become through social media. As Professor Beard suggested when she was interviewed on "Woman’s Hour", this kind of treatment acts as "a definite disincentive" for women to appear in a public forum and express their opinions. In our September/October 2011 issue we ran a supplement on "Inspiring Women". Time and again, whether it was Dawn Dixon on the Ford Machinists or Elin Hurvenes on Elisabeth Grieg or Tina Weymouth on Carol Kaye, one woman was inspired by the public example of another. Online abuse, then, isn't just foul in itself.  The wider repercussions are also damaging. Mary Beard might easily have been on our list of inspiring women. Her honesty in standing up and confronting her trolls would be one more reason.

If you want to read about inspiring women from our current issue, I recommend the heroism of the women in Cambodia—risking their lives to stop land grabs.

Kassia St Clair is editorial assistant at Intelligent LIfe. Her recent posts for the Editors' Blog include The Epsom Derby must mark this and Must be the champagne