Women’s words

Some things I want to speak into the void in an incoherent fashion:

I’ve been thinking about Mary Beard’s essay in the London Review of Books, “The Public Voice of Women.” (Yeah, it’s long, but she has pictures! In footnotes!)

Telemachus telling his mom to shut up.

Beard argues that women have been silent for 2,700 years — and it’s a silence that continues today. Even with this so-called rise of women (and purported “decline of men”) and the soaring numbers of women getting graduate degrees, women do not hold much sway at all in the public forum.

Even now, gossip and prattle seems to be the primary purview of feminine discourse. Women have always been chastised for being gossips. I can’t remember ever hearing a man called a “gossip,” or have been accused of doing it. (Men slander people; women, those catty little creatures, just gossip about them?) Thoughts on this: Women are relegated to gossip because they are prevented from other forms of speech, e.g., the “serious,” manly ones. Obviously, a lot of the historical barriers have been lifted — women can now too go sit in a bar and talk about the politics of fracking and Kafka — but for centuries, all serious topics have been reserved for men. (See Women, Know Your Limits!)

I come into this topic from an unusual personal vantage point. I hail from a community with a long heritage of hatred of women (conservative evangelicals + white people + homeschoolers). Most of the church communities from my childhood would blanch at the thought of letting a woman speak from the pulpit. Ordaining a woman was completely out of the question. (Yet another reason I’m proud to be Episcopalian now.) What could a man possibly learn from a woman?

And YET, I joined an active policy debate league when I was in high school. Yep, we homeschoolers had a national policy debate league. (It was super-weird and the most nerdy, but I loved it.) As a young woman, being a debater in a patriarchal, conservative community was interesting. Once I got over my paralyzing shyness, I’ll admit that I became a pretty good public speaker. Weirdly enough, I thrived behind a podium. It was one of the few places where I could speak with confidence in front of men — and they took me seriously.

But I learned, as Mary Beard points out, that a woman who is a strong public speaker is regarded as a freak of androgyny, far more masculine than feminine. So I never wore dresses or skirts, like the other girls did. I always wore pantsuits. I stood up with impeccable posture. I wore heels so that I’d tower over my male debate partner, and most of the other boys that I contended with. I marched around and gave firm, knuckle-cracking handshakes.

Beard points out that Margaret Thatcher took voice training lessons to specifically lower her voice.

Winona Ryder in “Little Women.” Jo March 4 Life!

During my final year, I partnered with my sister Kelsey, who was also a strong public speaker and very tall and also wore pantsuits. We won Regionals, against a team of two boys. I remember other people saying that the only reason we won was because we were pretty, and because the judges’ panel had three men on it. I remember the anger and hurt that welled up in me when people said that to me, but even worse, I remember the internal dread: What if it’s true? What if we didn’t win on our own merit, but simply because these old dudes were creepy?

(*Winona Ryder picture explanation: Remember that scene in “Little Women” when Jo is staying at the boarding house and sitting around with the dudes, talking about votes for women? As a kid, I always loved that scene, because she’s so eloquent and she stands up to those smoking bros. And these lines:

DUDE: You should have been a lawyer, Miss March.
JO MARCH: I should have been a great many things, Mr. Mayer.)

The sad part about Beard’s essay is that she can’t come up with any practical remedies to this age-old tradition of silencing and demeaning women.

Progress is slow. Very slow. So, women: Keep speaking!

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