Immodesty becomes her?

When the Toronto Globe & Mail announced that in future only medical doctors would be accorded the title ‘Dr’, it probably wasn’t expecting this news to cause much of a stir. But then a historian with a Ph.D objected:

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This tweet provoked an avalanche of criticism–directed not to the Globe & Mail‘s new style-rule, but to the arrogance and conceit of Fern Riddell. And as she later told the BBC, she couldn’t help noticing that her critics were mostly men. A lot of men seemed to be outraged by a woman claiming the status of an expert and expecting others to acknowledge her as such. ‘Humility Dr Riddell’, tweeted one. ‘There’s no Ph.D for that’.

But why should women humble themselves when other people are there to do it for them? As I explained in an earlier post, the treatment of women in professional and public settings is demonstrably affected by a ‘gender respect gap’: while this disrespect takes multiple forms, one salient manifestation of it is the withholding of professional and respect titles. It doesn’t just happen in academia: a 2017 study showed that women hospital doctors are less likely than their male counterparts to be referred to by male colleagues with the title ‘Dr’, and  in 2016 women lawyers in the US campaigned for the American Bar Association to make the use of endearment terms like ‘honey’ a breach of professional standards. Meanwhile, British school teachers have complained for decades about the convention whereby men are addressed as ‘sir’ while women of all ages get the rather less respectful ‘miss’.

Among the women who responded to Fern Riddell, a common complaint was that when titles are an issue there’s a relentless focus on women’s marital status. Some said they used their academic title as a way of dodging the dreaded ‘is that Miss or Mrs?’ But they also said that the answer ‘Dr’ was often met with a pained look or a sharp intake of breath. One woman tweeted that she had recently attended a ceremony honouring her for her academic work, and found that because her husband has the title ‘Sir’, she’d been listed as ‘Lady X’ rather than ‘Professor X’. Others pointed out that some airlines still won’t let passengers who tick the ‘female’ box select ‘Dr’ from the title menu–though women doctors, both medical and academic, existed long before there were online booking forms.

When women’s professional credentials are so routinely ignored, telling them to pipe down about their Ph.Ds just adds insult to the original injury. But in this case what motivated the insult wasn’t only disrespect: something else was also going on. And there’s a clue to what it was in the hashtag Riddell created as a riposte to the men who attacked her: #ImmodestWomen.

The word ‘immodest’ was an apt choice. What Riddell’s critics found most objectionable clearly wasn’t the fact that she had a Ph.D, it was her insistence on drawing public attention to that fact. Her sin was not to be an expert but to say in so many words, ‘I am an expert’. That was what prompted slap-downs like the sniffy ‘if you need to tell people you’re an expert you probably aren’t’, and the sententious ‘humility, Dr Riddell!’ Lurking behind these comments was the culturally-ingrained belief that a ‘good’ woman is by nature modest. However exceptional her talents, she does not give herself airs or seek applause. Even Marie Curie, noted one commenter, was content to be known as ‘Madame’. Who did Fern Riddell think she was, showing off about her qualifications and demanding to be referred to as ‘Dr’?

Historically modesty has been seen, along with chastity, piety and obedience, as a quintessentially female virtue, a quality women should cultivate not only as evidence of their goodness, but also as a mark of their femininity. Today the concept of modesty is most strongly associated with religious dress-codes, but in the past it regulated every aspect of a woman’s conduct: its demands dictated not only what she wore, where she went and how she spent her time, but also–and for my purposes most significantly–how she spoke.

The association of female speech with immodesty is a theme that goes back to antiquity. Particular concern was expressed about women speaking in public places or to strangers: Plutarch maintained that a virtuous woman ‘should as modestly guard against exposing her voice to outsiders as she would guard against stripping off her clothes’. In many contexts what modesty required of women was silence; if they were called upon to speak they were told to make their contributions brief, quiet, measured, discreet and dignified. Whereas men of high social rank were expected to cultivate eloquence, women were praised for their reticence.

Similar ideas figured prominently in advice books written for bourgeois Protestant readers in early modern England. One popular example, entitled ‘A Godly Forme of Household Gouernment’, instructed husbands to ‘be skillful in talk’ while exhorting their wives to ‘boast of silence’. This commandment, grounded in Biblical authority (notably St Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians to ‘let your women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak’), would be repeated for the next several centuries. As late as 1837, a group of Christian ministers in Massachusetts issued a pastoral letter denouncing women like the Grimké sisters, abolitionists who lectured publicly on the evils of slavery. Such immodest and unnatural behaviour, the letter warned, could only end in disaster: the women who engaged in it would ‘not only cease to bear fruit, but fall in shame and dishonor into the dust’.

Modern secular advice texts for women, like the etiquette books and ‘guides for brides’ which were widely read during the 20th century, turned away from the religious language of modesty and shame, but they continued to give substantially the same advice: don’t talk too much, don’t talk about yourself, don’t try to compete on men’s turf with ostentatious displays of knowledge or wit. The prevailing wisdom is  summarised succinctly in Emily Post’s bestselling Etiquette, first published in 1922:

The cleverest woman is she who, in talking to a man, makes him seem clever.

To that end, Post suggested that the most appropriate strategy for any woman who found herself making conversation with a man was ‘to ask advice’.  ‘In fact’, she went on, ‘it is sage to ask his opinion on almost anything’.  What we now call ‘mansplaining’ is evidently nothing new: generations of our foremothers were explicitly taught to encourage it.

Emily Post was not the kind of anti-feminist who disputed that women could be clever: her point was rather that a woman who did not 3660635trouble to conceal or downplay her cleverness was failing in her feminine duty to appear modest and self-effacing, and that this failure was socially disruptive. It threw a spanner into the well-oiled machine of ‘social usage’ (that is, the rules and rituals of the educated middle classes) by challenging basic assumptions about the roles of men and women.

When I read some of the comments addressed to Fern Riddell, I couldn’t help thinking about this long tradition–one which flourished for many centuries, and was still going strong during my own teenage years–condemning the immodesty of the woman who refuses to efface herself.  Today the older forms of this advice have become material for comedy (a classic example is Harry Enfield’s 1930s-style parody ‘Women, Know Your Limits’) but in subtler forms its spirit lingers on. And as I also noted in my ‘respect gap’ post, the pressure for women to display humility is no longer coming only from conservatives who feel men’s traditional prerogatives are being threatened: it is also coming from progressive movements, including feminism itself.

Feminists’ reactions to #ImmodestWomen were not uniformly positive. Some accused Riddell of elitism, pointing out that the credentials she was encouraging women to display are not equally available for everyone to earn, and that the knowledge acquired in academic institutions is not the only kind that deserves respect. These feminists saw the addition of ‘Dr’ to women’s Twitter names less as a celebration of women’s collective achievements and more as a flaunting of some women’s privilege. There were also feminists who did add ‘Dr’ to their names, but who noted as they did so that the gesture made them uneasy. Celia Kitzinger, for instance, tweeted:

I feel v uncomfortable at having changed my Twitter name to support #immodestwomen + wondering how long I can hold out before I change it back again! …I was brought up Quaker + learned to address/refer to everyone by first name (+ surname if I didn’t know them well). No titles or honorifics.

Kitzinger included a link to a blog maintained by the Society of Friends to answer questions about Quaker beliefs and practices. In this case the question was whether the Quakers had abandoned their old rule against using titles: having noticed a reference to a ‘Dr Nelson’ in a Quaker publication, the questioner wondered why the writer had departed from the strict egalitarianism of the past.

After acknowledging that this was a hotly debated issue among Quakers themselves, the respondent Chel Avery pointed out that the practice of avoiding titles was not originally, in the modern sense, egalitarian:

“Equality” as a principle was not much on the radar screens of early Friends. They believed in every person’s capacity to be enlivened by the spirit of God, they believed everyone had a soul (even women and non-whites, to the shock of many other Christians) … They also believed in humility as a quality necessary to be at one with the Divine Spirit. So social customs that contained flattery were objectionable to Friends because they were insincere. These customs were also seen as harmful, because to flatter someone would encourage vanity, not a healthy thing for their souls.

The Quaker rejection of titles was more about affirming the spiritual value of humility than the political value of equality—though some early Quakers clearly believed in both, and the second became more important over time. But in any case, as Avery went on to explain, in modern conditions it may be argued that prohibiting titles isn’t always the best way to express a commitment to equality. Consider, for instance, the elderly woman in a nursing home who is constantly addressed by her first name–even by people who have never met her before–because of the habit of treating old people as if they were children. In that situation, would it not be more in keeping with the principle that all humans are equal in worth and dignity to address her as ‘Mrs Peters’ rather than ‘Annie’?

Though they are clearly not identical, there is a parallel between this case and the case of women who want their professional qualifications to be acknowledged. Elderly people and women are both groups whose subordinate status is revealed by, among other things, a systematic tendency to patronise and belittle them. And in both cases one form this takes involves the withholding of linguistic tokens of respect. In that context, it could be argued, asking to be addressed by the title that applies (whether that’s Dr, Mrs, Captain, or whatever) is not an act of self-aggrandisement, and acceding to such a request is not sycophantic. If someone has been routinely disrespected, addressing them with a respect title is not endorsing inequality, but on the contrary, refusing to perpetuate it.

As always, though, the meaning of the gesture depends on the context. I don’t use my own academic title in non-academic settings, because I don’t think my status as a professor should give me an advantage over other people in contexts where that status is irrelevant. But when women with Ph.Ds ask students, colleagues or the media to call them ‘Dr’, what they’re asking for isn’t special treatment, it’s equal treatment. And we’ll know we’re getting closer to that objective when people stop reacting to any mention of a woman’s talents, achievements or qualifications with a lecture on the importance of being modest. If they really believe in the value of humility, perhaps they should try showing some themselves.

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The bins! the bins!

Remember SamCam? That’s tabloid-speak for Samantha Cameron, the wife of former Prime Minister David, and one of the stars of the 2015 General Election. Tory strategists deployed her as (in their own words) a ‘secret weapon’. She was seen meeting the voters, both with her husband and on her own. She gave interviews explaining why he was the right man to run the country. She made headlines when she revealed, during a visit to a Welsh brewery, that she’d been known to drink stout while she was pregnant. She wore clothes, which were duly discussed in all the papers.

By the end of the campaign, according to Loughborough University’s media watchers, Samantha Cameron was the 15th most talked-about person in press and TV election coverage. She was also the third most frequently-mentioned woman: the only women ranked above her were SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon (4) and the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett (12). SamCam got more attention than Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, or than the most senior women in the UK’s two main parties. She was more visible than any woman who was actually a candidate in the election.

The women’s pressure group Fawcett criticised this focus on politicians’ wives (SamCam being the most prominent but not the only example) as part of its #viewsnot shoes campaign against sexist election coverage. It was generally agreed that the same trivialising treatment would not be dished out to a male Prime Ministerial consort: the following year, when an actual female PM took office, the Metro underlined the point with a satirical piece headed ‘Theresa May’s husband steals the show in sexy navy suit as he starts new life as First Man’

But it seems we laughed too soon: the campaign strategists are back, and they’ve decided to weaponise Philip May. Last week he joined his wife on the sofa for an interview on the BBC’s early evening One Show. What followed was described by the Guardian as ‘a banal conversation [whose] aim was to present the Mays as a dull but dependable quasi-presidential First Couple’, while another critic called it ‘pure TV Valium’. But it was also a good illustration of the workings of the code I described in my last post.

The basic presupposition of this code is that female authority is unnatural and grotesque, threatening constantly to emasculate any man who comes within range of it. The resentment it generates is then expressed either through insults (‘such a nasty/bloody difficult woman’) or through ‘humorous’ references to archetypes like the nagging wife, the stern nanny, Miss Whiplash, Mummy and Matron. Women can either go along with this–join in with the joke, treat the insult as a compliment–or they can try to counter it by deliberately performing a more conventional and less threatening kind of femininity.

Theresa May has used the first strategy (telling us she planned to be ‘bloody difficult’ in the Brexit negotiations), and her appearance on the One Show with her husband was an example of the second. To see how it worked, let’s try a feminist decoding of some of the key, headline-grabbing moments.

I get to decide when to put the bins out. Not if I take them out.

“Ours is a normal marriage. At home my wife is in charge and she allocates me my chores. But in case I’m sounding henpecked, let me acknowledge that she does let me take the bins out at a time of my own choosing.” 

Philip was a tad off-message here, casting Theresa as an archetypal She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. (The bin-soundbite was odd in another way, too: does anyone really think that putting out the bins features prominently on the Prime Ministerial to-do list? Personally I’ve always assumed that the bins at 10 Downing Street are removed by the secret service and destroyed in a controlled explosion.) But she quickly stepped in to limit the damage:

There’s boy jobs and girls’ jobs, you see.

“Ours is a traditional marriage, in which we play traditional roles. Putting out the nasty dirty bins is no job for a woman, just as cleaning shit-encrusted toilets is no job for a man. Just because I run the country and was once photographed in a ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt, I wouldn’t want the British people to think I have no respect for ancient and illogical stereotypes. I’m a Tory, after all, and if that means I have to talk what I know in my heart is complete bollocks, so be it.”

Good catch by Theresa there: after her husband inadvertently made her sound like a bit of a bully, she immediately reasserted the key point that he is the man of the house. Though not, as he would go on to clarify, in the manner of a Victorian patriarch, or that bloke from UKIP who had to resign after calling women sluts because they didn’t clean behind the fridge:

If you’re the kind of man who expects his tea to be on the table at six o’clock every evening, you could be a disappointed man.

“Ours is a modern marriage: I’m the kind of modern husband who’s totally relaxed about his wife going out to work. Especially as we have staff.

So, we’ve addressed the whole domestic labour question, what other boxes do we need to tick to establish the correct degree of gender conformity? Ah yes…

I like buying nice shoes.

“I am the most powerful woman in Britain, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN I’VE LOST MY FEMININITY”.

I quite like ties.

“I am married to the most powerful woman in Britain, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN I’VE SUDDENLY DEVELOPED AN UNMANLY INTEREST IN FASHION”.

I don’t think it [the PM’s red box] has ever made an appearance in the bedroom. I’ve never had to shoo it out.

My wife’s job is not more important than our marriage, but if push came to shove I wouldn’t hesitate to tell her and her box what’s what. Also: I’m letting your reference to ‘the bedroom’ (just the one, then?) pass because it shows that ours is a normal marriage. But if you persist with this I will bore you to death.

Press commentators didn’t so much decode these remarks as write some more of the same code on top of them. In the Tory papers, the consensus seemed to be that the interview had helped to soften May’s steely image, making her seem more human (which was usually code for more ‘feminine’). As Quentin Letts put it in the Mail:

Theresa relaxed in [Philip’s] presence. She looked quite different from her normal, taut interview persona. Her eyes seemed rounder, her body language looser and happier than normal.

Reading this reminded me of an old advertisement which became a target for feminist protests in the late 1970s.2015HJ5115_jpg_ds It showed a woman walking down a street at night wearing a trench-coat, which she then unbuttoned to reveal that she was naked apart from her underwear (the product being advertised): the slogan was ‘Underneath they’re all Lovable’. In Mail-world, power does not make women lovable, and therefore it cannot make them happy: instead of trying to do important, stressful jobs, they should just follow their natural instincts, move to Stepford and let men kill them and replace them with robots take care of them.

Meanwhile, left-leaning commentators focused disapprovingly on Theresa May’s reference to ‘boy jobs and girls’ jobs’. Apart from being crassly sexist, wasn’t it a bit rich coming from a woman who’s doing one of the ultimate ‘boy jobs’ in her capacity as the UK’s Prime Minister?  Well, yes—but that was the point. If a right-wing woman has ambitions in the public sphere, it will always be prudent for her to reassure us that in private she’s as conventional as they come. ‘The nation needs me and I’ve dutifully answered the call, but I’m really just an ordinary housewife, cooking my husband’s tea while he puts the bins out. And by the way, shoes!’ There’s more rubbish in this kind of talk than there is in the aforementioned bins, but for as long as it plays well with the media and the public, Conservative women will go on spouting it.

You might be thinking, but is it really any different for the men? In 2015 they too (with the notable exception of Nigel Farage) dragged their families into their campaigns. The two Prime Ministerial contenders, David Cameron and Ed Miliband, both made high-profile appearances in their kitchens, as if to emphasise their credentials as loving husbands and hands-on fathers. As Emily Harmer pointed out at the time, though, the way this works is not the same for men and women. When a male political leader presents himself as a ‘family man’, he may be projecting a ‘modern’ masculinity, but he is also activating a more traditional patriarchal frame in which a father is the head and chief protector of his family. His private role is thus consistent with the public role he seeks (‘what I do for my family I will also do for the nation’). If he gets it right, his performance will appeal to both conservative and more liberal audiences.

For a woman like Theresa May, by contrast, this strategy is not available. What she has to prove to avoid being damned as a virago is that she doesn’t try to usurp her husband’s position at home–she sticks to the ‘girl jobs’ and leaves the ‘boy jobs’ to him. Yet she also has to convince us that she isn’t too feminine (too weak, too indecisive, too emotional) to do the ‘boy job’ of governing the country.

The effect of these contradictory pressures was apparent in the One Show interview, where May shifted awkwardly between her familiar ‘strong and stable’ message and the coyer, girlier mode that made such an impression on Quentin Letts. I’ll admit, I found it excruciating, and it looked as if the Mays did too. But I don’t think we can blame them, or the campaign strategists, for inflicting this spectacle upon us. The sexist attitudes on show in it were an accurate reflection of the sexist attitudes that pervade the wider culture, and especially the popular media. I look forward to a time when these will be consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history, but for the moment they seem to have got stuck in the recycling.

 

 

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.