The ancient Athenian sex-strike
If you've ever done live radio, you'll know how terrifying it can be. It's the drying up over a simple question that is the scariest prospect. Some friendly interviewer asks you when Caesar murdered, you really know perfectly well that it was the Ides of March 44 BC -- but suddenly, in front of a couple of million people, your mind goes blank and in desperation you make a stab at 43 (knowing perfectly well, in some part of your consciousness, it wasn't). And you get back to the office to discover an inbox full of emails lambasting you for your ignorance, regretting how low the University of Cambridge has sunk to have you in a char etc etc.
But, then again, there is an advantage in live transmission: what you say is exactly what gets broadcast; there no editing you into some mistake you never made.
On Friday I went to Oxford to do a lecture at Jesus College (the Don Fowler lecture -- founded in memory of a great young classicist who died in his forties more than ten years ago now). And at the last minute, I had arranged to do an interview with the Today programme on one of my little hobby horses: the role of women in power and government, and the backward steps we've taken from "Blair's Babes" on.
It's not just that there are only a handful women in the government. It's also that there has been a progressive "feminisation" of those that there are. In exchange for the wonderful feisty Barbara Castle, Mo Mowlam types -- we have got a load of padded shoulders.
I was wanting to say that this wasn't a problem that simple practical steps could solve -- useful as a proper parliamentary creche and some all women shortlists may be. It's more of a problem of how we fail to configure women and political power. Look how the phrase "ambitious man" is quite a compliment, "ambitious woman" is almost always pejorative. And look how women's voices get written off as shrill.
After some quite good stuff in this direction we got onto the ancient world, and how women made their point. In Aristophanes' fifth-century comedy Lysistrata, the women refused to sleep with their husbands until the stopped fighting the Peloponnesian war. That was OK in fantasy, I pointed out in the interview. But in real life the war went on.
Anyway, when I listened on Saturday morning, it was a good item over all (including a nice interview with a female Bolivian politician; but what did I (appear to) say? That the women in fifth-century Athens REALLY went on sex strike to get their way. The bit about it only being in a COMEDY had been edited out.
OK -- I said yes to doing it, knew the deal and had it coming. I'm not expecting sympathy. But back home to more outraged emails about my ignorance, and the plummeting standards in our once great universities!