Saturday, February 15, 2014

Women and public speaking by Mary Beard in LRB

Mary Beard, fellow of Newnham College Cambridge where she teaches Classics has an excellent piece on women and public speech in the LRB:

My aim here – and I acknowledge the irony of my being given the space to address the subject – is to take a long view, a very long view, on the culturally awkward relationship between the voice of women and the public sphere of speech-making, debate and comment: politics in its widest sense, from office committees to the floor of the House. I’m hoping that the long view will help us get beyond the simple diagnosis of ‘misogyny’ that we tend a bit lazily to fall back on. To be sure, ‘misogyny’ is one way of describing of what’s going on. (If you go on a television discussion programme and then receive a load of tweets comparing your genitalia to a variety of unpleasantly rotting vegetables, it’s hard to find a more apt word.) But if we want to understand – and do something about – the fact that women, even when they are not silenced, still have to pay a very high price for being heard, we have to recognise that it is a bit more complicated and that there’s a long back-story.

She says that there are only two exceptions: 1) Women are given speech as victims and martyrs (think of early Christian women, some of whom even "changed gender" at the point of public discourse) and 2) on occasions when women speak out "to defend their homes, children, husbands or interests of other women." Think here of the mother of the Maccabean martyrs. 

The issue is larger than this, however,

What I mean is that public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender... Public speech was a – if not the– defining attribute of male-ness. A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition not a woman. We find repeated stress throughout ancient literature on the authority of the deep male voice. As one ancient scientific treatise explicitly put it, a low-pitched voice indicated manly courage, a high-pitched voice female cowardice. Or as other classical writers insisted, the tone and timbre of women’s speech always threatened to subvert not just the voice of the male orator, but also the social and political stability, the health, of the whole state. So another second-century lecturer and guru, Dio Chrysostom, whose name, significantly, means Dio ‘the Golden Mouth’, asked his audience to imagine a situation where ‘an entire community was struck by the following strange affliction: all the men suddenly got female voices, and no male – child or adult – could say anything in a manly way. Would not that seem terrible and harder to bear than any plague? I’m sure they would send off to a sanctuary to consult the gods and try to propitiate the divine power with many gifts.’ He wasn’t joking.


and she concludes that we need to
raise bigger questions about the nature and purpose of speech, male or female. We should perhaps take our cue from this, and try to bring to the surface the kinds of question we tend to shelve about how we speak in public, why and whose voice fits. What we need is some old fashioned consciousness-raising about what we mean by the voice of authority and how we’ve come to construct it. 

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