She Speaks

Three years ago, to mark the political party conference season, I wrote a post about Great Political Speeches—or rather, Great Male Political Speeches. On most Anglophone lists of the best speeches of all time you will find just one token woman, or if you’re really lucky, two. British list compilers typically select from a field consisting of Elizabeth I, Emmeline Pankhurst and Margaret Thatcher; their US counterparts, who (still) can’t choose a female president, tend to go for Susan B. Anthony or Sojourner Truth.

Of course, it’s not surprising if the female speechmakers of the past can’t compete with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. In addition to being gifted orators, these men were leaders of global stature, speaking at key historical moments on subjects of grave import. Until recently very few women, however gifted, were in a position to tick any of those boxes. But even today, as the Labour MP Yvette Cooper says in the introduction to her recent anthology of women’s speeches She Speaks: The Power of Women’s Voices, ‘public speaking can still feel like a man’s world’. Though women are no longer banned from the podium, they still have to contend with various ancient sexist prejudices.

By way of illustration, Cooper quotes the introduction to an anthology of great speeches produced in the 1990s, where the editors offer three justifications for the near-absence of women. The first is the point I’ve just made myself, that women were historically excluded from the ‘great stages’. The second is that women ‘wanted no part in the macho game of domination by speech’ (really? In that case why did they spend much of the 19th century fighting for their right to speak in public without being denounced as unnatural and immoral?) But it’s the third justification that really grates: ‘women’s voices are not made by nature for oratory. They are not deep enough’. Though Cooper rightly calls it ‘ludicrous’, the prejudice against female voices is still alive and well: witness the complaints about Hillary Clinton’s ‘shrillness’ during the 2016 presidential campaign, and the outrage provoked by the BBC’s decision to let a woman commentate on the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

But in any case, these justifications begin from a false premise. They’re answers to the question ‘why haven’t women made speeches?’, when in fact women have made speeches: there’s a tradition of female oratory that goes back at least to the early 19th century. By the 1990s it wasn’t even true that there were no women speaking from ‘the great stages’. The anthology Cooper criticises was published, as she points out, in the same year Hillary Clinton made her ‘women’s rights are human rights’ speech in Beijing, and Benazir Bhutto addressed the UN as the first woman elected head of an Islamic state.

She Speaks is Cooper’s attempt to redress the balance. Her introduction makes clear that what inspired the project wasn’t just her irritation with male-dominated anthologies, but also her concern about recent developments in our public discourse. Whether it’s the casual misogyny of populist leaders like Donald Trump or the rape and death threats which any woman with a public platform can now expect to receive (Cooper reminds us that her colleague Jo Cox MP was murdered by a man who took exception to her views), she believes that women are being silenced, and she wants to encourage them to resist. ‘The women in this book wouldn’t stay quiet’, she writes. ‘Their words live on after their speeches and will live on after they have gone’.

So, who are the women in this book? There are 35 in all: about half of them are British, including political leaders (Boudica, Elizabeth I, Prime Ministers Thatcher and May), politicians (Eleanor Rathbone, Barbara Castle, Diane Abbott, Harriet Harman, Jo Cox, Cooper herself) and campaigners (Josephine Butler, Emmeline Pankhurst, Alison Drake, Emma Watson). Another fairly well-represented category is non-British female heads of state like Benazir Bhutto, Angela Merkel, Julia Gillard (yes, the ‘misogyny speech’) and Jacinda Ardern. 

Predictably, the largest single group of non-Brits are American: political figures (Sojourner Truth, Michelle Obama, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), writers (Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde) and performers (Lupita Nyong’o, Ellen DeGeneres). There are also two young activists with global profiles (Malala Yousefzai and Greta Thunberg), two Nobel laureates (one a physicist, the other the first African to win the Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai), a disability activist, a trans activist and a Holocaust survivor; there’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s celebrated ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ TED talk, and a speech by Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association. The sequence is chronological, and in each case we get some contextualising discussion followed by the (sometimes abridged) text of the speech itself.

As exemplars of Great Speechmaking I’d say Cooper’s selections are a mixed bag.  I did feel that quite a lot of her choices were based less on the quality of the speeches themselves than on her view of the speaker and/or her life-story as inspiring. I thought that was a pity: since great male speeches are usually remembered for both reasons, it risks recycling the conventional wisdom that women lack men’s rhetorical skills.

This problem was most evident in the British politicians’ speeches. Cooper’s own contribution, urging Parliament to do for refugees fleeing war in Syria what Britain had done for those fleeing Nazism in the 1940s, is one of the better examples, rhetorically speaking. Apart from the two Tory Prime Ministers, her other choices are all women of her own party, many of them her colleagues and friends; she obviously admires them as people and as politicians, but they aren’t all great political speakers. In current British politics I don’t think there are many outstanding speakers of either sex; but I was surprised Cooper passed over one senior female politician who really does stand out for her rhetorical skills: the SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Among the non-British politicians, I was most impressed by Jacinda Ardern (speaking after the terrorist attack on a mosque in Christchurch) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: both have the ability to fit their words to the occasion in a way that seems not merely apt, but uplifting. Michelle Obama’s 2016 Democratic Convention speech also gets high marks: it’s one of the few that contains a genuinely memorable line (‘when they go low, we go high’).

This example points to a perennial problem with anthologies of speeches: some of the qualities that make a speech great may be lost in the transition to print. In 2017 I praised Michelle Obama for the way she connected with her audience; her speech is still pretty good on the page, but it was her embodied presence and her rapport with the people in the hall that made it so compelling in its original, oral form.

Another case where some of the original magic has been lost in transcription is Julia Gillard’s famous ‘misogyny’ speech. If you watch her performance on video it’s electrifying, but as a text it’s surprisingly flat: the first part is still memorable, but the energy of the rest of it was more in the righteously angry delivery than in the language itself. (I do like this musical setting, however.) Similarly with Malala Yusefzai and Greta Thunberg: both hold your attention when they speak, but the written version of Malala’s ‘Education First’ speech to the UN is a more highly-crafted text, and thus more rewarding to read.

The biggest revelation, for me, was Kavita Krishnan excoriating the authorities after the gang-rape of Jyoti Singh on a Delhi bus. It’s a remarkable feminist speech–as Yvette Cooper says, both impassioned and forensic. It uses plain language in the service of a sophisticated argument, a skill which is all too rare. Here’s part of the last section by way of illustration:

Women have a right to freedom. And that freedom without fear is what we need to protect, to guard and respect.

I am saying this because I feel that the word ‘safety’ with regard to women has been used far too much (…)

Women know what ‘safety’ refers to.

It means—you behave yourself. You get back into the house. You don’t dress in a particular way. Do not live by your freedom, and this means that you are safe.

A whole range of patriarchal laws and institutions tell us what to do in the guise of keeping us ‘safe’. We reject this entire notion. We don’t want it.

The Delhi police is running an ad campaign… [with] a Hindi film actor exhorting people, ‘Be a man, join me in protecting women’. I want to ask, what about the brother who cuts his sister’s head off when she dares to marry into a different community? Is he not playing the role of a male protector too?

This machismo is not any solution to the problem of violence against women; it is, in fact, the root of the problem. This is what we need to understand.

For all that we live in a multimedia age, speeches like this one, delivered to the crowd at a protest, show that our oldest political communication technology has not lost its power. And it’s important that women can harness that power on equal terms with men. 

Of course, just celebrating female speakers doesn’t remove either the structural barriers or the cultural prejudices that still prevent or deter women from speaking publicly; efforts to address those issues must continue. But we should also remember that, as the saying goes, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. Girls and women need to know that people like them not only can speak, but have spoken— powerfully, persuasively and movingly—on all kinds of subjects and in all kinds of situations. That’s where anthologies of women’s speeches have a part to play; I might quibble with some of Yvette Cooper’s choices, but her aim is one I think feminists should applaud.  

Slanging match

In 1960 the lexicographer Stuart Flexner declared in his preface to the Dictionary of American Slang that ‘most American slang is created and used by males’.

Many types of slang words – including the taboo and strongly derogatory ones, those referring to sex, women, work, money, whiskey, politics, transportation, sports, and the like – refer primarily to male endeavor and interest. The majority of entries in this dictionary could be labeled “primarily masculine use.”

This view reflected more general assumptions about women, men and language. Forty years earlier the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen had suggested that linguistically as in other respects, the two sexes were complementary. Women’s role in the development of language was to exert a civilising influence through their ‘instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions’. Men, by contrast, were responsible for ‘renewing’ language to ensure that it did not become ‘languid and insipid’. Slang, from this perspective, had two defining masculine qualities: much of it was ‘coarse and gross’, but it was also inventive and continuously changing–a product of the linguistic creativity which Jespersen assumed that men possessed and women lacked.

Feminists, of course, have questioned this account. Like the related idea that women don’t swear, ‘women don’t create or use slang’ sounds suspiciously like a combination of wishful thinking and sexist language-policing (‘we don’t think women should swear/use slang, so we’ll insist that it’s not in their nature’). But in that case, why are dictionaries like Flexner’s so dominated by the vocabulary of men? Does that just reflect the historical fact that slang has flourished most conspicuously in the ‘underground’ subcultures of (for instance) thieves, conmen, gangsters, gamblers, soldiers and sailors—all groups in which women were un- or under-represented? Or is it a reflection of male slang-collectors’ limitations, either their inability to access women’s slang or their insistence on defining slang in a way that excluded female speech?

This long-running debate has recently been revisited by the slang lexicographer and historian Jonathon Green, in a book entitled Sounds and Furies: The Love-Hate Relationship between Women and Slang. Having dipped into it last year, I’ve now (thanks to the current lockdown) had time to digest it properly. At over 500 pages it’s not a quick read, but if you’re interested in the subject it’s full of fascinating detail. It is also (IMHO) a welcome corrective to the nonsense that has been talked for decades about women’s (non)contribution to slang.

Women’s supposed avoidance of ‘coarse and gross expressions’ is obviously a myth, contradicted by evidence about both the present and the past. We have many historical records of the abuse uttered by women during arguments with their neighbours that sometimes landed them in court, not to mention the Billingsgate fishwives whose obscene invective gave their occupational title a secondary meaning of ‘foul-mouthed woman’. However, slang encompasses more than just insults and obscenities: it also includes the informal terminology used by specific in-groups, especially those outside or on the fringes of ‘respectable’ society. On this question Green suggests (though cautiously, since most records of the speech of marginalised groups were written down by outsiders, making it difficult to gauge their accuracy), that what’s often been presented as male in-group slang was most likely known and used by both sexes, to the extent that they participated in the same activities and social networks.

Crime is the prototypical example of an in-group slang-generating activity (the precursors of slang dictionaries were glossaries of ‘thieves’ cant’, which began to appear in England in the 16th century), and it is one that has always involved women as well as men. Some women played supporting roles as men’s wives, girlfriends or accomplices, but others (like Mary Frith, aka ‘Moll Cutpurse’) engaged in daring exploits that made them (in)famous in their own right, or played influential roles behind the scenes. Early writing about these women represents them using the same cant as their male counterparts, and this is hardly surprising—if your business was robbing or conning people, you’d surely know the vocabulary of the trade. Later on, though, the conviction that women didn’t use slang (or obscenities, or nonstandard dialect) would lead writers to clean up the language of both real and fictional female criminals, creating such implausibly ‘well-spoken’ examples as Dickens’s Nancy in Oliver Twist.

One criminalized activity in which women were always over-represented was the sex trade, but some male authorities have gone out of their way to deny that prostitutes have created slang: as one put it, ‘they lack the sophistication to make and acquire an artificial language for themselves’. But the evidence Green reviews suggests, again unsurprisingly, that women who sell sex have developed their own ‘work-specific jargon’—including a list of terms describing their customers as fools, suckers, losers, sexual inadequates, perverts and scumbags. Perhaps they chose not to share this lexicon with the male researchers who sought them out—or perhaps the researchers didn’t ask. A similar point can be made about lesbians, another ‘outlaw’ group who have been said to have no slang of their own. The folklorist Gershon Legman put the dearth of lesbian material in his 1941 glossary of ‘the language of homosexuality’ down to lesbians’ ‘tradition of gentlemanly restraint’, but he doesn’t seem to have had much evidence about the way lesbians talked among themselves.

Slang is not, in any case, the exclusive domain of ‘outlaws’ or people at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Green also discusses family and nursery slang (much of it probably female-coined), the slang of ‘respectable’ female occupations like nursing, and a number of historical cases where young women—not infrequently from the higher echelons of society—were the prime movers in the development of an identifiably female or female-centred form of youth slang. In these cases no one suggested that girls and women were incapable of inventing their own language; on the contrary, their linguistic creativity was used as a stick to beat them with. The Burlington Free Press complained in 1879 that

The poorest, feeblest and most vicious slang….is the fashionable slang which pollutes the lips of young girls. ‘Awfully jolly’, ‘Immense’, ‘Aint he a tumbler?’ ‘He has a great deal of the dog on today’.

This writer was talking about the in-group language of the young middle-class women who were referred to, disapprovingly, as ‘fast young ladies’. The term ‘fast’, applied to men, meant a hedonist who devoted his life to pleasure; applied to young women, however, it meant

one who affects mannish habits, or makes herself conspicuous by some unfeminine accomplishment—talks slang, drives about in London, smokes cigarettes, is knowing in dogs, horses, etc.

The slang-using girl was seen as rejecting femininity, and with it her prospects of future happiness. ‘She thinks she is piquante and exciting’, complained one (male) writer in 1868, ‘and will not see that though men laugh with her they do not respect her, though they flirt with her they do not marry her’. He called for the return of the ‘simple and genuine girl of the past, with her tender little ways and pretty bashful modesty’.

The panic about ‘fast’ girls did eventually fade away, but complaints about young women’s slang lived on, finding new targets in the girls who featured in (and read) the early 20th century boarding school stories of Angela Brazil (‘Right you are, O Queen, it’s a blossomy idea!’) and in the slightly older figure of the 1920s flapper. Frivolous, flighty and ‘loose’, with her trademark bobbed hair and lipstick, the flapper had an elaborate slang lexicon for discussing her main preoccupations, which included dancing, drinking, money and men. Among the expressions she either coined or popularised are some we still recognise, even if we no longer use them—like ‘the cat’s pyjamas’, ‘the bee’s knees’ and ‘for crying out loud’ (a ‘clean’ version of ‘for Christ’s sake’: the avoidance of actual obscenity does seem to have been a feature of middle-class girls’ slang).

Flapperdom was the first in a long line of 20th century youth subcultures with a distinctive style that included slang. In some cases this argot was either male-centred or shared by both sexes, but in others, like the ‘Valley Girl-speak’ that emerged in California in the 1980s (‘gag me with a spoon!’), it was created and primarily used by young women—who were promptly criticised, like fast girls a century earlier, for being vacuous, frivolous, pretentious and superficial.

These recurring complaints underline the point that slang is not and never has been an exclusively male preserve. But each generation of critics has presented young women’s slang as if it were a wholly new phenomenon, a worrying departure from the relatively recent past when girls were allegedly ‘genuine’ and modest. As usual with verbal hygiene, there is more at stake here than language. Disapproving of girls’ slang has often been a coded expression of a deeper unease about social change. Whether she was a middle-class flapper or a working-class ‘munitionette’, the slang-using young woman symbolised female emancipation, and as such she was a threat to the patriarchal status quo.

Complaints about young people’s slang have continued into the 21st century: in the past few years a number of British schools have gone so far as to ban slang expressions like ‘peng’, ‘bare’, ‘bait’, ’emosh’ and ‘fam’. But today the anxiety youth slang provokes seems to have more to do with class (and sometimes race) than gender. Girls are no longer accused of ‘affecting mannish habits’, or warned that they are jeopardising their chances of finding a husband. Rather, both they and boys are told that their slang is holding them back academically and damaging their future employment prospects.

Yet the old sexist prejudices have not completely disappeared. Two years ago, when the Metro newspaper asked if swearing made a woman less attractive to men, not only did many men answer ‘yes’, some added that they were also turned off by women who spoke with strong local accents or used ‘colloquial slang’. Two years earlier, Faima Bakar had complained in a piece for Gal-Dem about young men telling young women not to talk ‘street’. Jespersen’s idealised woman (or rather, ‘lady’), with her ‘instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions’, lives on in these judgments—as does the idea of slang, along with nonstandard speech, as rough, tough and therefore male by definition.

This view of slang as ‘rough talk’ doesn’t just exclude women as legitimate users of slang, it also excludes certain kinds of in-group language used by women from the category of slang. As the lexicographer Katherine Connor Martin has pointed out, this makes the argument that women use slang less than men entirely circular. A full picture of women’s slang would require researchers to look beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and consult a wider range of sources. One source Jonathon Green looks at is Mumsnet, whose users, predominantly middle-class women with children, are pretty much the opposite of ‘outlaws’; yet they’re prolific creators of in-group terminology, and an excellent source for nursery slang (including terms for both sexes’ genitals: the male slang collector who confidently asserted in 1811 that ‘it is impossible that a female should understand the meaning of “twiddle-diddles”’ evidently hadn’t checked with his mother).

It has sometimes been suggested that women avoid what’s generally thought of as ‘real’ slang not because they’re prudes, but because so much of it is sexist and misogynist. But while that might be a consideration for some of us, there’s abundant evidence that woman-hating language has been weaponised by women as well as men. ‘Whore’ and its many synonyms have been the go-to woman-on-woman insults for centuries. Conversely, women’s in-group slang is often rich in disparaging terms for men. The flappers had various words for men who were reluctant to spend money on a date; contemporary female college students have produced a range of unflattering terms describing men you wouldn’t want to date in the first place—for instance, the unattractive ‘craterface’, the overweight ‘doughboy’, and—my particular favourite—the tedious ‘Mr Dry Guy’.

And what, we might ask, about feminist slang? While I was checking the opening quote from Flexner’s preface, I unexpectedly found myself in the manosphere–more specifically, on the MRA hellsite that calls itself A Voice For Men--where Flexner had been approvingly quoted in a 2017 post celebrating slang as ‘the original voice of men’. The writer points out that men’s rights activism has an extensive slang lexicon–‘cuck’, ‘mangina’, ’emotional tampon’ (no, me neither)–whereas feminists, he says, have only ‘prosaic’, quasi-academic terms like ‘benevolent sexism’ and ‘toxic masculinity’. ‘Feminism’, he comments,

is an ideology, and ideologues are not noted for their sense of humor. Also, wit is a trait only rarely associated with women, though they do excel at making catty remarks.

The supposed nonexistence of feminist slang also shows that feminists are the establishment, whereas the men who invented ‘cuck’ and ‘mangina’ are rebellious outlaws. But hold on a minute, dude, if you’re going to boast about ‘mangina’, how about ‘mansplain’, ‘manterrupt’,  ‘manspread’ and ‘mantrum’? And while you’re waxing nostalgic about the 1960s, may I remind you that the feminists of that decade called men like you MCPs, which stood for ‘male chauvinist pigs’?

The truth is, as Green says in his conclusion, that slang is ‘an equal-opportunity employee’. Though men and women may have different slang repertoires, they employ them for the same basic purposes: bonding with in-group members while excluding outsiders, entertaining their friends and insulting their enemies. Those aren’t just things that men do: for better or for worse, they’re things that humans do.

Making words count: a review of Christina Dalcher’s Vox

In 2006, a pop-science book called The Female Brain informed readers that the average woman utters 20,000 words a day to the average man’s 7000. This was the latest in a long line of similar male-versus-female-words-per-day claims. Before 2006, one oft-repeated figure was 7000 words a day for women and only 2000 for men. Other sources suggested 12,000 words per day for men and 30,000 for women, or 25,000 for men and 50,000 for women. All these statistics are still floating around the internet, though none of them is backed up by any credible evidence. It’s obvious such wildly varying numbers can’t all be right, but that hasn’t diminished the popular appeal of the basic point they were all designed to make, namely ‘women utter at least twice as many words in a day as men’.

The general belief that women talk more than men is as ancient as it is inaccurate, but this particular variant of it—what the linguist and blogger Mark Liberman once dubbed ‘the sex-linked vocabulary allowance idea’—seems to have originated much more recently. One of the earliest examples Liberman found appeared in a 1993 book about Christian marriage, James Dobson’s Love for a Lifetime, which suggested that God had given men and women different daily word-budgets. The point was (as it usually was in the 1990s, the decade that brought us Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) that harmonious marital relationships required each sex to accommodate the other’s difference. But there is, of course, another interpretation of God’s wishes in this matter, which is particularly popular among Christian fundamentalists: that a good woman is sparing in her use of words, if not completely silent. And this ultra-patriarchal version of the sex-linked vocabulary allowance idea has now become the premise for a piece of feminist speculative fiction, Christina Dalcher’s novel Vox.

The narrator and main protagonist of Vox is Jean McClellan, a neurolinguist who has made significant advances in the treatment of aphasia. But when we meet her, her career has come to an abrupt halt, following the rise to power of the Pure Movement, which has turned the US into a Christian theocracy. Women have been stripped of their civil rights, placed under male guardianship and sent home to do their Christian duty as full-time housewives and mothers (or in the case of lesbians and other ‘deviants’, shipped off to do hard labour in prison camps).

If you’re thinking this sounds familiar, you’re not wrong: essentially we’re in Gilead without the fertility crisis. The resemblance to The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t stop with the basic scenario (a near-future USA that’s been taken over by religious fanatics). Vox also features a similar cast of characters: there’s the Offred-style heroine who didn’t care about politics until her rights were taken away, the Moira-like BFF (Jackie, a perpetually-outraged feminist who went to graduate school with Jean), the nice-but-weak husband who’s reluctant to rock the boat, and the daughter our heroine would do anything to protect. It’s hard to quarrel with the reviewers who have found the book a tad derivative (one can only hope Margaret Atwood agrees that emulation is the sincerest form of flattery). But what does distinguish it from Atwood’s classic is the use Dalcher makes of the sex-linked vocabulary allowance idea.

In Vox-world, every female over three months of age must wear a bracelet around her wrist which automatically counts the words she utters. Her daily allowance is 100 words (reduced to zero for those sent to labour camps). If she exceeds it by even one word the bracelet will deliver an electric shock, and the higher her word-count climbs, the more intense the shocks become. She cannot get around this by using sign language, which those who monitor the omnipresent surveillance cameras are instructed to look out for. Nor can she resort to writing: books, pens, paper and computers are all locked away, and only the males in each household have access to them. Girls like Sonia, the youngest of Jean’s four children, are no longer taught to read and write. They are schooled only in home economics—cooking, sewing, and as much arithmetic as you need to manage a housekeeping budget.

There is nothing especially startling about a fictional dystopia where women are denied access to literacy, since this is far from unheard of in the real world. Women are also forbidden to read in Atwood’s Gilead. But the rationing of their spoken output to 100 words per day is a much bolder stroke. voxTo put it in context: in 2007, after Mark Liberman had drawn attention to the popular fascination with unsupported and wildly variable words-per-day claims, a team of researchers in Arizona decided to investigate the issue scientifically. They reported that the mean number of words uttered per day was around 16,000. (There were large differences between individuals, but very little difference in the group averages for the two sexes: the female mean was slightly higher than the male one, but the difference was not statistically significant.) If we take this study’s findings as a rough guide, and if we assume people spend eight hours silently sleeping, the average speaker produces about a thousand words per hour. And if you think that sounds like a lot, a normal rate of (American English) speech is somewhere between 100 and 200 words per minute.

Clearly, 100 words is a negligible number: most of us could get through it in less than 60 seconds of continuous talk. Of course it’s true that most everyday speech is conversation rather than monologue. But an allowance of only 100 words a day would rule out any kind of sustained interaction. There would be no chatting with friends, helping the kids with their homework or arguing with your spouse. If, like Jean, you had a husband and four children, you could easily use up your entire daily ration saying things as banal as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘stop that’ and ‘it’s in the fridge’.  Even then, you’d have to weigh every word with care before you committed yourself to speaking it aloud. When your budgeting could be derailed by a cry of surprise, a false start or a self-correction, spontaneity would soon become an unaffordable luxury. Would this level of self-monitoring ever become second nature, or would women end up feeling that it would be easier not to talk at all?

Though I’d probably have read this book for the same reason I went to see Arrival—just because its central character is a linguist—it was the 100-words-a-day conceit that really piqued my interest. It’s a brilliantly simple ‘what if?’: what if men’s age-old complaints about women nagging and scolding and gossiping and chattering were rendered obsolete at a stroke, using a device not much more complicated than a Fitbit? It raises interesting questions taken on its own terms (how would women cope, and what would the long-term effects be?) while also prompting reflection on our own attitudes to women’s speech. As an idea I still think it’s inspired; I just wish that Dalcher had allowed herself to really run with it.

One theme I think she does handle well is the way women are made complicit by their desire to protect their daughters. Before Sonia is old enough to understand the concept of a word limit, Jean uses behaviourist techniques to train her to stay within it. She models ‘good’ behaviour by speaking minimally or not at all, and systematically rewards the same behaviour in her daughter with praise, affection and treats. But Sonia doesn’t know her mother is trying to spare her the pain of an electric shock. The lesson she is learning is that the less a girl speaks, the more she will be loved. One day she comes home from school bursting with pride because she has won a competition for the pupil with the fewest words on her counter (her tally is a paltry three). She can’t understand why Jean does not seem to share her joy.

There are uncomfortable parallels here with our own world. Our aims may be less explicit and our methods less crude, but as a society we also teach girls to mind their language and reward them for complying with gendered expectations (be quiet, be nice, be a good listener). And while we don’t dole out electric shocks to girls and women who express themselves too freely, we certainly have ways of punishing them, which cover a spectrum from disapproval and shaming to threatened and actual violence.

But other questions you might expect to be explored are either raised and then quickly dropped, or else bypassed altogether. One of these concerns the long-term social consequences of reducing women to near-silence. Following their expulsion from the workforce, women have become, to an even greater extent than before, the primary carers for young children, while conversely fathers have become even less hands-on (getting rid of all the women forces the men to work punishing hours). But normal linguistic and cognitive development does not take place without adequate input, as we know from case-studies of abused and neglected children. How will children acquire language in future if their daily input during the crucial early years is limited to the 100 words their mothers are allowed to utter?  The leaders of the Pure Movement (not unlike most politicians in our own world) overlook the extent to which all functioning societies depend on the unpaid care work done by women, including and especially the work of socializing new humans. Will the attempt to stop women talking end up destroying language itself?

Another question is whether people deprived of articulate speech would develop compensatory strategies and alternative modes of communication. VOX-cover-683x1024The abused child known in the literature as ‘Genie’, who spent her early years in isolation and enforced silence, and whose verbal abilities remained very limited, had a remarkable ability to communicate without words—to the point where total strangers would approach her carers in shops, offering items which they said they had somehow intuited her desire for. The urge to communicate is strong in most humans: it seems odd to me that the women in Vox have not become as adept as Genie at communicating nonverbally, or devised codes exploiting the semiotic resources they do still have access to–like non-linguistic vocalisation (e.g. wordless singing or humming), head movements, or touch.

One reason Dalcher doesn’t follow up on all the questions she might fruitfully have explored is that she doesn’t stick to the conventions of the dystopia genre for long enough. The book gradually turns into a thriller, building up to a climactic showdown between the good guys, a team of scientists led by Jean, and the bad guys of the Pure Movement.  This part of the story begins when the government approaches Jean to work on a secret project that requires her expertise. As the work progresses, she discovers two important things: one is the Pure Movement’s real plan for her aphasia cure (which is, it goes without saying, of the dastardly variety), while the other is the existence of an organised resistance movement. Helped by the latter, she embarks on a mission to foil the former.

The shift into thriller mode is another reason why the book has attracted criticism from reviewers. As the Washington Post commented, the trick with speculative fiction is to maintain plausibility within the parameters of a basically implausible situation, and the final chapters of Vox are not remotely plausible. Characters we thought we knew turn out to have been fooling us all along, unlikely coincidences abound, and science starts to look like magic. I’m not a neurolinguist myself, but I suspect the neurolinguists I know would agree with the Post that ‘Jean’s against-the-clock medical research makes MacGyver look like Francis Crick’.

I’d thought Vox might challenge Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue for the title of Most Memorable Feminist Linguistic Dystopia, but in the event I found it disappointing. Which is not to say you shouldn’t read it: it’s good in parts, and a page-turner even when it isn’t good. It just doesn’t develop its central idea enough to give the reader what I think of as the full dystopian experience–a sense of total immersion in an alternative reality.  As a number of reviewers pointed out, though, the current state of the real world has given this genre a noticeable boost (the Washington Post‘s review was headed ‘Donald Trump has made feminist dystopias great again’). So, while Vox may not have done full justice to its subject, I’m sure it will not be the last word.

 

The year in language and feminism, Part II: selected reading

I created this blog primarily as a vehicle for my own thoughts and opinions, but what I write for it is always informed by other people’s research, and by ideas I’ve encountered in other people’s writing. So, to complement my recent review of the year, I’d like to share ten things I read in 2017 which I found interesting, informative and thought-provoking—and which aren’t too technical to be accessible to non-specialists.

Four books

Mary Beard, Women and Power: A Manifesto. A short book which takes the long view on the silencing of women in patriarchal societies.

Emma Jane, Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History. An Australian journalist turned academic researcher examines the development and impact of online misogyny, and its characteristic linguistic register ‘Rapeglish’, from 1998 to the present.

Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. Before anyone was talking about the ‘alt-right’, Angela Nagle was investigating the online subcultures from which it emerged, tracking the people involved, the platforms they used, the political positions they espoused and—from a linguist’s perspective most interestingly—the evolution of their distinctive communication style. This isn’t as distinctive as we might think: it has much in common with earlier celebrations of transgression (‘kill all normies’ is reminiscent of Baudelaire’s ‘il faut épater les bourgeois’), and its emphasis on men rebelling against the domesticating influence of women recalls the leftist counter-culture of the 1960s (think Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). What this shows, Nagle argues, is that we shouldn’t equate being transgressive with being politically progressive. She thinks opponents of the ‘alt-right’ need to take a critical look at their own style of discourse.

Jennifer Sclafani, Talking Donald Trump. Another short book in which an interactional sociolinguist analyses Donald Trump’s use of spoken language during the contest for the Republican nomination. Sclafani doesn’t say much about Trump’s performance of masculinity (which became more salient after he won the nomination and was pitted against a female opponent, Hillary Clinton), but what she does do, by concentrating on small but interactionally significant details, is get beyond the linguistically superficial received wisdom (‘he’s inarticulate/ can’t construct a proper sentence/ has a vocabulary as small as his hands’) to show what’s actually distinctive (and effective) about Trump’s style of public speaking.

Six shorter reads

Language, gender and politics

Unsurprisingly, 2017 produced many reflections on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, and one issue some of these reflections addressed was the role played by gendered language in shaping responses to the candidates. Among the most intriguing approaches to the question was a dramatic experiment asking ‘What if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had swapped genders?

Speaking while female in the workplace

Though working women in 2017 continued to be lectured about their dysfunctional ‘verbal tics’, the idea that inequality in the workplace might not be the result of women’s own linguistic shortcomings appears to be gaining more traction. The research reported in ‘A study used sensors to show that men and women are treated differently at work’ led the researchers to conclude that the problem is ‘bias, not differences in behavior’.

Representing violence against women

Watching the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which was one of the feminist cultural events of the year, prompted Emma Nagouse, who researches Biblical and contemporary rape narratives, to write ‘Handmaids and Jezebels: anaesthetising the language of sexual violence’, about the way language is used to normalise sexual violence and exploitation in the fictional world of Gilead. Later in the year it would become apparent that language serves a not dissimilar purpose in our own world. In ‘The complicated, inadequate language of sexual violence’, Constance Grady reflected on the difficult linguistic choices writers face in reporting women’s experiences of sexual harassment.

Language, gender and artificial intelligence

There was a steady stream of commentary this year on the rise of intelligent machines and what it might mean for the future of humanity. A question of interest to feminists is whether the Brave New World of AI will look any less sexist than what preceded it. In her short but pithy ‘What is a female robot?’, Gia Milinovich asked what it means to treat a  machine as ‘female’. Another memorable piece about the way gender affects human-machine relationships was ‘Siri is dying. Long live Susan Bennett’. Susan Bennett is the woman whose recorded voice was used, without her knowledge, to create the first version of Apple’s virtual assistant Siri. There’s nothing feminist about the writer’s take on her story, but for a feminist reader it contains plenty of food for thought. You could think of it as a Pygmalion narrative for the 21st century, set in a technologically advanced world where women are still seen as raw material to be shaped and improved on by male ingenuity.

Bonus: something to listen to

One of my professional sheroes, the cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott, gave 2017’s Royal Institution Christmas lectures for young people. In the run-up to the lectures she made this podcast, which is interesting on a range of frequently asked questions about language, evolution and the brain, and includes some trenchant debunking of  myths about male-female differences.

As Sophie Scott observes, challenging popular beliefs about men and women is an uphill struggle. Though I’ve only mentioned a few by name in this post, I want to salute all those women (and men) who have, nevertheless, persisted.

 

 

 

Sex, death and aliens: a feminist watches ‘Arrival’

Last week I saw Arrival, the recently-released film with Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguist recruited by the US military to decode the language of some non-humanoid aliens who have unexpectedly arrived on earth. I wasn’t expecting to love it; in fact, when I first heard about it I thought I’d probably give it a miss. For one thing, I’ve never been a great fan of the ‘aliens have landed’ genre; for another, I’d read that Arrival leans heavily on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a 20th century theory which says that your perceptions of reality are influenced—or in the strongest version of the theory, determined—by the characteristics of the language you speak.

People in my line of work tend to approach anything based on this premise with caution. Most linguists rejected the ‘strong’ version of the hypothesis long ago (though ‘weak’ versions continue to be debated), but that hasn’t prevented it from being endlessly recycled in popular culture, often in crassly simplistic ways. Some propositions based on it have been around forever, repeated so often they’ve passed into received wisdom (like the indestructible zombie fact about Eskimos having a lot of words for snow—they don’t, but even if they did, as Geoff Pullum says in his classic debunking piece ‘The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax’, why would that be any more significant than printers having a lot of words for fonts?) Others, testifying to its continuing vitality, have popped up more recently (remember the headline-making claim from 2013, that people save more if their language lacks a future tense?)

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has also been of interest to feminists. In 1980 Dale Spender invoked it to support her thesis that women were oppressed by having to view the world through the lens of a ‘man made language’. And a few years later, as I explained in an earlier post, the feminist linguist and sci-fi writer Suzette Haden Elgin made it the premise of a series of novels, for which she also created an alternative ‘women’s language’.

Not all versions of the idea that idea that language determines thought are directly indebted to Sapir and Whorf. Another perennially popular source for it is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. (Orwell was a contemporary of Whorf, though it’s unclear if he knew Whorf’s writing). Though Arrival refers explicitly to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in some ways it seemed closer to the Orwellian tradition. Specifically, it reminded me of a classic piece of feminist writing in that tradition: Carol Cohn’s 1987 article ‘Sex and death in the rational world of defense intellectuals’.

Cohn wrote this article after spending a year at what she refers to as ‘the Center’, an institution devoted to studying the technology and strategic use of nuclear weapons. (She memorably describes herself as ‘a feminist spy in the house of death’.) A critic of US defence policy, she hoped that spending time with ‘defence intellectuals’ would give her politically valuable insights into their thinking. But she gradually became aware of a paradox. To interact with the experts it was necessary to speak their language, since if you didn’t use their specialist terminology they dismissed you as ignorant and naïve. But as Cohn learnt the language she realised her attitudes had changed:

The more conversations I participated in using this language, the less frightened I was of nuclear war.

Why did learning the language have this effect?  Cohn’s answer is that ‘nukespeak’ is designed to make its users feel powerful and in control. By positioning them as knowledgeable, rational agents, planning and overseeing the use of weapons of mass destruction, it insulates them from the emotions they would feel if they identified with the mass of powerless victims.

The most obvious feature of nukespeak which enables it to do this job is abstraction: it’s full of acronyms and obscure nominalisations (like ‘escalation dominance’ and ‘strategic stability’) which are, as Cohn comments,

so bland that they never force the speaker or enable the listener to touch the realities of nuclear holocaust.

But it isn’t all about bland euphemisms. Another way in which users of nukespeak are induced to feel powerful is by imagining weapons as extensions of their masculinity. Cohn reports being both amazed and appalled by the extent to which explicitly sexual imagery pervaded the experts’ discourse:

Lectures were filled with discussion of vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks—what one military adviser to the National Security Council has called “releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump”.

Yet the same weapons could also be imagined as cute animals or harmless pets: one anti-ballistic missile system went by the acronym ‘BAMBI’, and on a tour of a nuclear submarine the visitors were asked if they wanted to ‘pat’ a missile.

Cohn was also struck by what the experts couldn’t talk about. The model that informed their strategic discussions had been developed mainly by mathematicians, and its internal logic excluded the human factors which would be likely to affect any real-world conflict. For instance, discussions of ‘limited nuclear war’ were conducted on the assumption that

Our rational actors would be free of emotional response to being attacked, free of political pressures from the populace, free from madness or despair or any of the myriad other factors that regularly affect human actions and decision making. They would act solely on the basis of a perfectly informed mathematical calculus of megatonnage.

Which brings me back to Arrival, and why it reminded me of Cohn’s article. What I saw in the film was the same opposition Cohn posits between militaristic ‘male’ values (rationality, dominance, destructiveness) and their ‘female’ opposites (emotion, co-operation, nurturance). In Arrival the female values ultimately defeat the male ones. Whether you think that makes it a feminist film will depend on what kind of feminist you are.

What I knew about Arrival before I saw it suggested it would be a feminist film in the more conventional Hollywood sense. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test (which requires at least one scene where two named female characters discuss something other than a man), because there’s only one adult female character in it. But that character, Louise Banks, is the main protagonist, and her role in the story is defined by her intellectual and professional achievements. She isn’t just a man’s sidekick or his love interest. She’s smart and brave and she ends up saving the world.

But at a deeper level the narrative is structured by the stereotypical male/female opposition I mentioned earlier. Louise isn’t just a brilliant linguist who happens (like many real-life brilliant linguists) to be a woman. The logic of the film requires her to be a woman—Venus to the military establishment’s Mars. I said before that what defines her role is her profession, but in fact she is also identified, in the opening moments of the film, as a mother—one who (we are led to believe) has suffered the death of a beloved child. And this is not irrelevant. Her success in decoding the aliens’ language is shown to depend not only on her technical skills (which are alluded to more than they are displayed), but also and crucially on her feminine/maternal qualities of empathy, intuition and compassion.

These qualities are especially prominent in the scene where Louise makes her initial breakthrough. She manages to connect with the aliens, before she knows how to communicate with them, when she impulsively abandons the defensive posture required by military protocol, and instead makes herself vulnerable. Defying her orders, she removes her protective gear, walks up to the glass wall that separates the humans from the aliens, and presses her naked palm against the glass—a gesture which the aliens reciprocate, and then follow up by offering the first, all-important evidence of their writing system.

Later on, Louise will apply her emotional intelligence to defusing the threat of global war, which arises because of a conflict among rival human powers (China, Russia, the US and their various satellites) about how to deal with the aliens, and in particular, whether to use force against them. This part of the film is like a textbook illustration of Carol Cohn’s point about the practical irrelevance of defence strategists’ abstract models. The politicians and generals who must decide what to do are clearly not in control, and nor are they making rational decisions. As their terrified populations riot, loot and demand immediate action against the alien menace, these leaders stop trying to figure out whether the aliens are really a threat, shut down communications and focus solipsistically on their own political interests (apparently they reason that it’s better to blow up the world than give up your strategic advantage by sharing intel with your rivals).

As the crisis escalates, the rational, pragmatic army colonel in charge of the US military operation seems to accept that the world is heading for catastrophe. Louise, however—who by now is in touch not only with her own feelings, but also with the aliens’ minds (this is where the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis comes in: by learning the aliens’ language she has become able to cognize the way they do)—refuses to accept defeat. Disobeying orders one last time, she makes a phone call and averts disaster. (I won’t reveal how she does it, but her strategy is definitely from Venus.)

Louise isn’t exactly a ‘feminist spy in the house of death’, since she appears to have no political convictions of any kind. But she can be seen as a disruptive female force in a world whose rules are made by men, and in the context of the film as a whole I think she does symbolise the old idea that women are the creators and protectors of life, whereas men—or at least the powerful ones—are the bringers of death and destruction.

That was also, of course, an argument used by some feminist peace activists in the 1980s. It’s not my favourite feminist idea; but the popularity of Arrival suggests that, like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it still resonates. And when you look at what’s happening around the world today, perhaps that isn’t hard to understand.

Voices at an exhibition

Last week I went to see the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition ‘This is a voice’, which explores, among other things, ‘how the unique grain of the voice locates us socially, geographically and psychologically, and how the voice can be dramatically altered by treatment and training’. The exhibits relating to this theme deal with subjects ranging from accent reduction to ventriloquism. But in this post I’m going to concentrate on two pieces which consider the way voices are gendered.

In Chris Chapman’s 2016 video ‘Voice and identity’, Adele, a trans woman, and James, a trans man, talk about the way their voices changed during the process of transitioning. Their personal reflections are intercut with explanatory commentary from a speech and language therapist, Jen Read.

One of the first points the video makes is that altering the way they sound is much more difficult for trans women (who make up around 85% of the caseload for speech therapists working with trans people), because the feminizing hormones they take do not affect their voices. Taking testosterone, by contrast, causes a trans man’s vocal folds to thicken and so produces a deeper voice. James recalls that his voice had changed perceptibly within three weeks of beginning treatment. He presents the way he sounds as something he has little or no control over—though he is happy with the result, saying that others now respond to him more consistently as a man.

Adele describes a much more conscious process of thinking about the kind of voice she wanted and then working out how to produce it. She says she never wanted a ‘girly’ voice: even if that had been achievable, it wouldn’t have been right either for her profession (acting) or her sense of who she was as an individual. Her post-transition voice has remained noticeably low in pitch. But like James, she reports a positive effect, saying that people no longer have difficulty in recognizing her as a woman.

What Adele’s case underlines is that sounding like a woman is not just a question of pitch. If you were only going by pitch, Adele could be a person of either sex. What leads others (including me) to perceive her voice as a woman’s rather than a man’s is her whole vocal performance of femininity; in her case that depends less on pitch per se than on her voice quality, intonation (that is, pitch movement, the melody of speech), and the way she articulates certain sounds.

Jen Read’s comments make clear that pitch is only one of the things she works on with her clients. She also shows them how to produce what she calls a ‘brighter’ sound by articulating further forward in the mouth, encourages them to add more breathiness to their voices, and teaches them to make use of more varied intonation patterns. Some courses and advice books aimed at trans women go further, offering suggestions for feminizing your vocabulary (use words like ‘gorgeous’), grammar (ask lots of questions) and paralanguage (smile!).

Not all the intended recipients of this advice are eager to take it. The veteran trans activist Kate Bornstein rejected it entirely:

I was taught to speak in a very high-pitched, very breathy, sing-song voice and to tag questions onto the end of each sentence. And I was supposed to smile all the time when I was talking. And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk like that!’

The truth is that nobody talks like that. Many of the tips given to trans women are plucked from the same steaming pile of ‘zombie facts’ about women’s speech that I’ve criticised in earlier posts (e.g., that women chatter away endlessly, apologize constantly and make everything sound like a question). What they collectively add up to is a picture of female speech that has approximately the same relationship to reality as Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent in Mary Poppins. But the thing about caricatures is that we do generally recognize what they are meant to be. If your main concern is to avoid being misgendered, a highly stereotypical performance might actually serve your purposes better than a more ‘realistic’ one.

Even at its least stereotypical, though, the voice-training given to trans women takes a normative approach. It doesn’t start from empirical observations about the way most women actually sound, but rather from an idealized notion of how a woman ought to sound. Most of Jen Read’s advice, for instance, is based on the idea that sounding like a woman means projecting ‘feminine’ qualities in your voice–that’s why she teaches clients to make their voices softer, breathier, warmer and more emotionally expressive. These vocal characteristics have nothing to do with the physical differences between the sexes: their association with women rather than men is cultural rather than natural. And from a feminist perspective they are not unproblematic, because so many of the qualities we define as ‘feminine’ are inextricably linked to women’s subordinate status.

If there is more to the gendering of voices than pitch, why is it assumed that trans men do not need to be instructed in the finer points of ‘masculine’ performance? Reviewing the literature on transgender and language in 1999, the anthropologist Don Kulick commented that virtually all the sources he read, both expert and popular, made that assumption. What lay behind it, in his view, was a tacit understanding that femininity requires (from all women, not just trans women) a more elaborate kind of performance than masculinity. As Kulick puts it,

Being a man is self-evident, whereas being a woman is a complicated set of procedures that require careful adherence to detailed, explicit instructions…about how to walk, talk, sit, eat, dress, move and display affect.

His point is illustrated by the contrast between James’s unselfconscious account of finding his voice (which he presents as more a case of it finding him) and Adele’s acute awareness of the choices she had to make. It’s a pity ‘Voice and identity’ doesn’t explore this difference in more depth. In fact, I found it generally lacking in complexity, though that may be because it isn’t aimed at people like me who already know something about its subject. For those who don’t, it’s a clear and informative presentation.

The same cannot be said about the other exhibit relating to the altered/gendered voice, Imogen Stidworthy’s video installation ‘Castrato’. This consists of three screens, showing, respectively, a soprano, a boy treble and a counter-tenor–those being the voice-types that were digitally merged to simulate the castrato voice for the film Farinelli. The catalogue description says that the artist has taken the ‘lost voice’ of the castrato (the last one died in 1922) as ‘the starting-point for an investigation into the interdependence and divergence between voices and bodies’.

I’m not sure what kind of ‘investigation’ the artist had in mind, but I did find it strange that an exhibition in a museum devoted to the history of medicine and science provided no historical information about the practice of castrating boys to preserve their pure, high voices into adulthood. All the curator’s notes say about this is that it was ‘long since made illegal’.

Actually, castration was always forbidden by canon law (i.e. the law of the Roman Catholic Church)—though between the 16th and 19th centuries, when the practice flourished in Italy, it was the Church that gave castrati both their musical training and in many cases their employment. At a time when women were prohibited from singing in church (where St Paul had decreed they should be silent), castrati were highly valued as choral singers. They shared the boy treble’s ability to sing high-register parts, but they were more experienced, more rigorously trained and had far more vocal power (castration prevented their voices from breaking, but it did not stop them from developing the lung capacity of adult males). They were also in demand as operatic performers, playing both male and female roles. Until the 18th century female singers were banned from the stage as well as the church, but in any case the castrato voice was considered superior because of its greater purity and power.

Most of the boys who supplied this demand came from poor families who saw the castration of their sons as an investment. The pay-off was supposed to be economic security, and perhaps even fame and fortune. This didn’t always work out, though: some boys died from bleeding or infection (or overdoses of the opium that was sometimes used as an anaesthetic), and not all those who survived had the musical talent to succeed. Historical sources suggest that even those who prospered quite often expressed resentment towards their families, and sometimes refused them financial support.

The most famous castrati have often been presented as exotic or romantic figures, and in recent decades, as Patricia Juliana Smith points out, the way they ‘blurred distinctions of sex and gender’ has given them ‘a certain queer appeal’. The facts I’ve just outlined, though, make it difficult to regret the end of the practice that produced their ‘angelic‘ voices. Not because that practice produced anomalously-gendered people, but because it was brutal, dangerous and enacted on children (most were aged between 7 and 9) who could have had little idea what it would mean for their future lives. Some castrati are known to have married,  but hypogonadism usually impairs sexual function, and it always results in infertility. That isn’t a small sacrifice, especially when you didn’t choose to make it.

Thinking about the case of the castrati might also prompt reflection on the ethical dilemma that has recently arisen in relation to the increasing numbers of children who are presenting as transgendered before the onset of puberty. It is now possible to alter the course of their sexual development by treating them with puberty-blocking drugs and then initiating the transition process. But since treatment must begin before children are able to make their own medical decisions, the question arises of whether parents should be able to make this highly consequential decision on children’s behalf. As I mentioned before, many castrati seem to have felt regret, and in some cases deep resentment, about the choice their families made for them. Will that history be repeated with the current generation of trans children?

We might tell ourselves that the two cases have nothing in common: the motivations behind the choice are different, and this is not the 18th century. Our medical science is far more sophisticated, and our attitudes to sex and gender are more enlightened. But one thing we learn from the history of  science is to be cautious in assessing the state of our knowledge. What one generation of scientists presents as settled, objective fact may later come to be seen as wrong, incomplete and biased; what is regarded as an enlightened view in one time and place may be judged very differently in another. After seeing both the exhibits I’ve discussed, I couldn’t help wondering how our beliefs about gender, and the associated practices of training and treatment, will be seen by future historians and scientists.

The parts of this exhibition that deal with gender most directly focus on unusually dramatic forms of voice-alteration, and one point that gets lost as a result is that all gendered voices are in some sense altered voices. In most cases this doesn’t involve  medical treatment or formal training, but it is still an example of culture modifying the raw material supplied by nature.

That point even applies to the relationship between sex and voice pitch. Though this mostly reflects the physical differences between adult men and women, research suggests it has a learned component too: the ‘normal’ pitch of a male or female voice has been found to vary across cultures and languages. Studies have also found that boys’ voices can be distinguished fairly reliably from girls’, though before puberty that can’t be because of any significant difference in their vocal anatomy.

What we see in these cases is the effect of everyday socialization processes. As they become aware of the norms of their culture, children unconsciously train themselves to perform gender in accordance with social expectations. They’re also taught to do this by others’ feedback on their performance. The girl whose teacher repeatedly tells her to speak more quietly, or the boy whose peers deride his ‘gay’ pronunciation of certain sounds, are both learning lessons about what kinds of voices should go with what kinds of people.

What feminists need to keep in mind, though, is that the ‘should’ in that last sentence is a cultural injunction: it doesn’t refer to some immutable natural law. Like other norms for gender-appropriate behaviour, the norms that regulate gendered vocal performance can be criticized, resisted, and changed.

‘This is a voice’ is at the Wellcome Collection in London until the end of July 2016.