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Are Woman Good Public Speakers?

The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do men and women really speak different languages? by Deborah Cameron, Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at Oxford University, argues that gender needs to be viewed in more complex ways than the prevailing myths and stereotypes allow. In the article below Cameron looks at historical stereotypes of female orators and reflects on Hillary Clinton’s primary run.

After Hillary Clinton lost to Barack Obama in Iowa, the London Times columnist David Aaronovitch suggested that part of Mrs. Clinton’s problem might lie in our contradictory attitudes to women’s public speech. If their style is assertive they are labeled “shrill” and “strident”; if it is softer and more conciliatory, that casts doubt on their ability to lead. However she speaks, it seems a woman cannot win.

Aaronovitch’s point is not undermined by Mrs. Clinton’s subsequent victory in New Hampshire. In the opinion of many commentators, her fortunes myth.JPGimproved after Iowa at least partly because she adopted a more overtly feminine style, speaking directly about her feelings and shedding a few tears. But if this gained her some points with the voters, it did not have the same effect on media pundits. People who had previously complained about Mrs. Clinton’s coldness now accused her of turning on the emotional taps in a calculated bid for sympathy. (Maureen Dowd in the New York Times quoted Spencer Tracy’s character in Adam’s Rib: “Here we go again, the old juice. Guaranteed heart melter. A few female tears, stronger than any acid.”)

It is perhaps instructive to recall that Margaret Thatcher—often considered the most formidable of all western female political leaders—encountered similar problems 25 years ago. Early on in her prime ministerial career, concerns that her self-presentation lacked a certain authority and gravitas (or put another way, maleness) prompted image consultants to give her a radical make-over. As well as acquiring a new wardrobe, Mrs. Thatcher emerged with a new voice. She had lowered her pitch by about half the normal female range, and learned to control her intonation—the rise and fall of the voice in normal speech—to make it less “swoopy” and more monotonous. These modifications were intended to make her sound less like a genteel English lady and more like a commanding leader. But there was a downside: her remodeled way of speaking undoubtedly contributed to the perception that she was hectoring and aggressive, like Mary Poppins without the charm.

Though negative attitudes to women’s speech go back to antiquity, the particular problems experienced by women politicians today have their roots in the 19th century, when the exclusion of women from the public sphere was maintained in part by a specific prohibition on female public speech. For a woman to address an audience on any serious subject was not merely incongruous or ridiculous, it was an offense against nature and an affront to public decency. In 1837 a group of American Congregationalist ministers published a letter declaring that a woman who spoke publicly would “not only cease to bear fruit [i.e., become infertile], but fall in shame and dishonor in the dust”.

This was a time when many educated women were becoming active in campaigns to abolish slavery, promote temperance or secure the vote: they felt both a desire and an obligation to speak out in support of these causes, and became increasingly impatient with the restrictions that held them back. But while some (like the feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton) chose to contest those restrictions directly, others preferred a less confrontational approach, acknowledging and working around the prejudices of the time. The educator Emma Willard, for instance, who undertook a speaking tour of the US in 1846, used the strategy of speaking from a chair instead of a podium. She hoped to deflect the charge of indecency by presenting her addresses less as what they really were—public lectures—and more as extensions of private domestic conversation.

Today’s female politicians are not required to go to these lengths. But they do still very often feel obliged to work around the idea that there is something inherently unfeminine about speaking with authority in public. However unreasonable they consider it, as candidates for political office they cannot afford to ignore a prejudice which may influence large numbers of voters. Hence, perhaps, Hillary Clinton’s willingness to let the media see her tears and feel her pain. We don’t have to suspect her of faking it to think that there was probably an element of calculation: as an experienced campaigner she must surely have understood that showing her more emotional, “feminine” side was what a lot of people expected and wanted from her.

The pressure put on women to project what might seem to be incompatible qualities (to be credible as politicians they must come across as authoritative, competent and courageous, but to be acceptable as women they must also appear unaggressive, modest and vulnerable) poses real problems for them as public speakers. How can a woman find her own distinctive voice when she is constantly having to measure her speech, both what she says and how she says it, against her audience’s expectations of the generic woman speaker? What kind of rhetoric will enable her to circumvent the tendency to judge women negatively, as either too assertive or too soft, too emotional or too unfeeling, without being so cautious and so bland as to be instantly forgettable and totally uninspiring?

This is one problem Barack Obama does not have. As an African American he may labor under the weight of historical disadvantages which do not affect Mrs. Clinton, but one thing he does inherit from his political forbears is a distinguished tradition of public oratory. That tradition’s most iconic modern figure, Martin Luther King, is generally regarded as one of the greatest political speakers of the past 100 years. We are still waiting for history to judge a woman orator as it has judged Dr. King, and arguably we are still waiting for the woman who deserves that judgment. Not because women do not have what it takes to be great orators; the problem is rather that women speakers are still not granted the same freedom, nor judged by the same standards, as men. If the current contest for the Democratic nomination shows how far women have come, it also suggests that their journey is not yet over.

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