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Hullabaloo


Monday, March 24, 2014

 
On the public voices of women

by digby

Word to the wise fellas, don't ever talk to a woman you like and respect this way unless you want her to become really, really angry:


Mike just kept going and good for her.  The childish behavior of her co-host however, betrays the attitude one sees far too often among certain men who "don't want to hear it."

This little contretemps reminded me of this wonderfully illuminating talk on the public voice of women by Mary Beard, transcribed by the LRB:
I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public. I’m thinking of a moment immortalised at the start of the Odyssey. We tend now to think of the Odyssey as the story of Odysseus and the adventures and scrapes he had returning home after the Trojan War – while for decades Penelope loyally waited for him, fending off the suitors who were pressing for her hand.​1 But the Odyssey is just as much the story of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope; the story of his growing up; how over the course of the poem he matures from boy to man. The process starts in the first book with Penelope coming down from her private quarters into the great hall, to find a bard performing to throngs of her suitors; he’s singing about the difficulties the Greek heroes are having in reaching home. She isn’t amused, and in front of everyone she asks him to choose another, happier number. At which point young Telemachus intervenes: ‘Mother,’ he says, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.’ And off she goes, back upstairs.​

There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope. But it’s a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere; more than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.
I commented recently to someone on twitter that the one thing that stood out to me in the days when people did not know that I was a woman, was the fact that I was automatically granted authority. I had never experienced that in my life and it was quite glorious while it lasted.

Perhaps many of you men are rolling your eyes about now. But it's really worth reading the whole piece (or listening to the talk if that's easier) to understand just how disempowering this sort of interchange really is --- and how depressingly fundamental to Western culture.

There was one part of her that particularly stood out to me as I watch the current discourse on social media and women's place in it. It is wrong to say that we are not allowed to speak at all.  We have, in fact, been graciously granted authority in one particular area.:
Looking at modern traditions of oratory more generally, we also find that same single area of licence for women to talk publicly, in support of their own sectional interests, or to parade their victimhood. If you search out the women’s contributions included in those curious compendia, called ‘one hundred great speeches of history’ and the like, you’ll find that most of the female highlights from Emmeline Pankhurst to Hillary Clinton’s address to the UN conference on women in Beijing are about the lot of women. So too is probably the most popularly anthologised example of female oratory of all, the 1851 ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ speech of Sojourner Truth, ex-slave, abolitionist and American campaigner for women’s rights. ‘And ain’t I a woman?’ she is supposed to have said. ‘I have borne 13 chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman …’​12 I should say that influential as these words have been, they are only slightly less mythical than Elizabeth’s at Tilbury. The authorised version was written up a decade or so after Sojourner Truth said whatever she said – and that is when the now famous refrain, which she certainly did not say, was inserted, while at the same time her words as a whole were translated into a Southern drawl, to match the abolitionist message, even though she came from the North and had been brought up speaking Dutch. I’m not saying that women’s voices raised in support of women’s causes weren’t important, but it remains the case that women’s public speech has for centuries been ‘niched’ into that area.
Plus ça change ...

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