Hovering over almost all women who stand up and insist on being heard is a putdown only used in for the female of the species; a word that is particular to the attempt to belittle and silence women. That word is “shrill.”
It was used more liberally by detractors in the early days of feminism, but it has not gone away. That word not only is meant to imply unreasonableness or being out of control. The word is calling attention to the sound of women. A woman’s actual voice seems to be a problem.
How far we have come since the 1970s when as the broadcaster Joan Bakewell remembered “I asked the head of BBC News, `Might a woman one day read the news?’ and was told `Absolutely not!’” We now have visible and vocal women in all forms of media.
But the doubt about a woman’s voice being heard as equal to a man’s is far from eradicated. In many corridors of power, the woman’s voice still attracts demeaning words such as shrill, bossy, feisty and emotional. Remember David Cameron’s famous “Calm down, dear”? You can understand why younger women—particularly performers and comedians—take this criticism and gleefully exploit it with self-acknowledged bolshy, loud “unladylike” voices. Good on them.
But what about the voices of women leaders in business, in courts, in education, in parliament, in more everyday life? How are they perceived? And here, this anxiety about female representation and power gets a little tricky in its manifestation. Because I think it’s not just men who are putting down women. One of the distressing results about us still not having enough audible women in high places is that sometimes it’s other women who cast the doubts and the criticism.
We can work out why men fear powerful women but why do women fear them? We women seem to be fine with groups of women standing up together—women in parliament, the Fawcett Society, the Women’s Equality Party, the Women’s Prize for Fiction—but the woman who is seen to put herself above others is a tall poppy, the one too big for her boots, with ideas above her station. But isn’t that what we need? Women who do have ideas above their station? Modesty, likeability, and anxiety not to be too grand. These may be qualities we want in our female friends, but we need more than that from women leaders.
I think our anxiety is because though we women make up more that 50 percent of the population, we still feel and operate as if we were a minority group. And that’s not surprising: We don’t see enough women in position of control. It is not yet a normal, unremarkable fact that women have power. Because of that we are therefore highly critical of those who do stand up for us. Like a minority, we feel worried about who presumes to represent us. We look at particular women who are visible but often approve of them only when we feel they truly represent us. When they don’t comply with our views, we seem to want to tear them down and say that is not what I, as a woman, think; she doesn’t represent me. The obvious answer to this problem of a limited range of female power options is to have more women in power. Of course. We need more of what the BBC broadcaster, Mishal Husain calls “second women”, explaining, “While we owe a great deal to those who smashed the glass ceilings and led the way… the follow up is vital.” It means the first women were not one-offs. We need women in power to be an ordinary everyday fact.
But I also think we need to be highly conscious of this and actively want our women to be leaders and realise they may not be like us at all. The broader the variety, the better. Leaders with real vision have to take tough decisions, make unpopular choices and yes, stand above us. Leaders are not going to be perfect. We need, as women, to think about getting more women into power. We need to call out our own unconscious bias. We’ve not had so many women at the top that choosing a good female leader comes purely naturally—yet. Patriarchy lives deep inside us all.
We will know a new world is here once the sound of women in power feels utterly unremarkable.
Featured image: public domain via Unsplash