The Long, Weary Legacy of Women’s Speech and Power

cover of book, Women & Power

When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice. 

Mary Beard, Women & Power

You know it’s campaign season when then the New York Times runs a storyabout women tossing in their chapeaus for a presidential run. It feels vaguely familiar, doesn’t it, the idea of a woman presidential candidate? 2020 is on our doorstep.

Still, it is an uphill battle for women to be taken seriously in the American political arena. As the French say, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

The British Classicist Mary Beard, a professor at the University of Cambridge, pinpoints how the template for “silencing women” began and continued in her insightful book Women & Power.

The slim volume is derived from two lectures Professor Beard delivered, in 2014 and 2017, under the auspices of the London Review of Books, and subsequently published by LRB. This book brings her insights to a much wider audience.

Professor Beard posits the western cultural template has discredited women’s voices since the time of Homer, some 3,000 years ago.

By way of example, she points to Homer’s Ulysses. Early on Telemachus, the de facto head of household during his father’s long absence rudely dismisses his mother Penelope from the conversation with men, guests in her home. The business of speech, he says, is “men’s business.”

That little squirt Telemachus is strutting his stuff to impress the hangers-on, yet his very license to do so is revealing. In ancient Greece, women have nothing to say of substance, nothing to add to a meaningful discussion. They have no voice

There is a throughline to modern times.

A group of men and a lone woman gathered around a conference table. The man at the head of the table remarks,

“Excellent suggestion Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men would like to make it.” — Punch cartoon, ca. 1990s

That rings true. How many of us, muses Professor Beard, have had the “Miss Triggs” treatment.

I raise my hand.

What’s in a voice, and how is it heard?

Professor Beard is a gifted writer and esteemed historian of the Ancient World. (I’ll give a shout out to her best-seller S.P.Q.R. — a captivating history of Rome from a group of ragtag settlements to one of the greatest empires the world has ever known.)

She links her knowledge of our western cultural antecedents with the frustration many modern women face in being “heard,” of their voices taken seriously. Not a pretty picture to be sure, but it is illuminating to know that the cards have been dealt this way for a long, long time.

In ancient Greece, Professor Beard notes, “Public speech was a — if not the — defining attribute of maleness. Women simply didn’t speak in public.”

With that backdrop, what makes an ideal speaking voice? A male voice, of course. Deep, resonant. Beard cites an ancient scientific paper that stated, “a low-pitched voice indicated manly courage, a high-pitched voice female cowardness.” So there we have it.

I want to underline that this is a tradition of gendered speaking — and the theorizing of gendered speaking — to which we are still, directly or more often indirectly, the heirs. 

Mary Beard, Women & Power

I must continue to quote Professor Beard here because no one nails it so succinctly.

It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they do not hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it….You add in the craggy or wrinkled faces that signal mature wisdom in the case of a bloke, but ‘past my use-by date in the case of a woman. 

Mary Beard, Women & Power

If that doesn’t crystallize the frustration women feel in boardrooms, political caucuses, or simply school-board meetings, I don’t know what does. No shrill, no whining. A deep male voice.

We don’t need to be high profile public figures to experience the taint of “speaking while female.” I cringed at the following:

…you’re at a meeting, you make a point; then a short silence follows, and after a few awkward seconds some man picks up where he had just left off: ‘What I was saying was…’ 

Mary Beard, Women & Power

Wait, Professor Beard, were you the fly on the wall at my academic home in 2015, when, in a meeting of senior administrators, those nearly exact words were spoken to me? The speaker, a man, at least had the courtesy to preface his dismissive comment with, “Thank you, Jane.”

We all have our war stories.

Pivoting to women and power.

Here’s the central question:

How and why do the conventional definitions of ‘power’ (or for that matter of ‘knowledge,’ ‘expertise,’ and ‘authority’) that we carry around in our heads exclude women? 

Mary Beard, Women & Power

Beard points out to the lack of a modern-day “template” for the “look” of powerful women, other than she looks like a feminized version of a man.

I have one word: pantsuits. Think Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton. It’s refreshing to see Nancy Pelosi wear (to great effect) dresses and suit jackets with skirts. And Teresa May with her much publicized shoe thing. And younger, female members of the U.S. Congress?

Could it be that for a very elite, select few, we are finally turning a corner?

I think this upcoming field of women presidential candidates might reveal something. Well, I’m hopeful anyway. It’s an uphill battle.

You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession. 

Mary Beard, Women & Power

I stopped cold reading this, thinking about Nancy Pelosi’s reprimand of President Trump. She exhibited power. And she did so in a skirt. Pointing her finger.

Power isn’t, or doesn’t, need to be the preserve of the elite, either. Professor Beard cites (complete with photograph), the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opel Tometi. Three women who have made a difference in our society. With no “power” going in. #Blacklivesmatter.

These are examples, only two but a start, in response to Professor Beard’s rhetorical question,

…if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women 

Mary Beard, Women & Power

The Upshot

It’s a pretty long road from Homer to the second decade of the 21st Century. It’s centuries of teaching the way we “hear” women, respect women’s voices and subsequently value women’s power. In some ways, like Penelope, women are still being sent away from the room in western cultures, figuratively speaking, to tend to “ women’s issues.”

Even so, when women politicians (in the U.S.) champion the most basic “women’s issue” — the broadening of healthcare, they are met with metaphorical torches and pitchforks. We’re still a long way from allowing women a strong voice — or the power — to shape our lives.

Old habits die hard. Especially the ancient ones.

Copyright 2019 Jane Trombley

This post was first published in Publishous on Medium.

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