It ain’t what you say…

Women/ Rabbit rabbit rabbit women/ Tattle and titter/ Women prattle/ Women waffle and witter/ Men talk. Men talk.

These are the opening lines of ‘Men Talk’, a rap poem by the incomparable Liz Lochhead (you can watch her performing the whole thing here). It’s built around the familiar lexicon of disparaging terms for women’s speech: words like ‘rabbit’, ‘prattle’ and ‘witter’, which represent women’s talk as excessive, trivial and inane; and words like ‘gossip’ and ‘nag’, which represent it as malign and spiteful.

But those words are only the tip of the iceberg. If you look at the way the act of speaking is described in everything from news reports to Great Literature, you’ll soon discover that it’s persistently represented in stereotypically gendered and sexist ways.

The most neutral way to describe the act of speaking is by using the generic verb ‘say’. ‘X said’ is the reported speech equivalent of Lochhead’s ‘men talk’: it conveys no more than ‘this person uttered these words’. But writers often add colour by choosing something a bit less basic. Here’s an example, from a political sketch that appeared in the Telegraph after the second TV debate of the 2015 General Election campaign.

“Ed Miliband is scared to be bold,” scowled Ms Sturgeon. “We don’t want a pretend alternative to austerity.” “Exactly right!” squeaked Ms Bennett.

“Labour are letting the Tories off the hook!” snapped Ms Wood. The audience applauded.

Desperately Mr Miliband tried to steer the debate back to his absent foe. “Let’s not pretend there’s no difference between me and David Cameron,” he said, rather pleadingly.  “There’s not a big enough difference!” barked Ms Sturgeon.

Notice that it’s the only male participant in this exchange, Ed Miliband, whose contribution is reported using the basic ‘said’ (though the writer does add some extra information with the adverbial ‘rather pleadingly’). The three women, by contrast, don’t just ‘say’ things, they ‘scowl’, ‘squeak’, ‘snap’ and ‘bark’.

These verbs aren’t literally describing how the women sounded. They’ve been chosen to help the writer tell a story, in which a hapless male is ganged up on and berated by three angry and aggressive females. If we only had the speakers’ own words to go on, we might not make that interpretation: we’re directed to it mainly by the writer’s choice of verbs (‘scowl’, ‘snap’, ‘bark’) and adverbs (‘desperately’, ‘pleadingly’). The verbs also say something about the power dynamic among the women. Whereas ‘squeaked’ casts Natalie Bennett as a small animal, ‘snapped’ and ‘barked’ suggest bigger beasts.

This example isn’t unique. When Elisabeth Gidengil and Joanna Everitt examined TV coverage of the 1993 Canadian election campaign, in which two of the five parties were led by women,  they also found a tendency for men’s words to be reported with the plain and non-committal ‘he said’, while women’s were described in more elaborate, less neutral terms. Among the verbs which were only used about the women party leaders, and never about their male opponents, were ‘argue’, ‘blast’, ‘fire at’, ‘hammer away’ and ‘launch [an attack]’. There were also verbs, like ‘accuse’, which were sometimes applied to men, but occurred more frequently in relation to women. The women, in short, were systematically represented as more verbally aggressive than the men.

The researchers did consider the possibility that the women really were more aggressive, but when they analysed the five leaders’ actual speech they found no evidence to support that. The real difference, they argue, is in the way male and female speakers are judged: if women deviate from stereotypical expectations by presenting themselves as tough rather than gentle, combative rather than conciliatory, they are perceived as more aggressive than men who behave in exactly the same way. That perception, Gidengil and Everitt suggest, explains why female leaders’ speech is reported using more aggressive verbs of speaking. The contrast between ‘he said’ and ‘she blasted’ is an explicit encoding of the underlying double standard.

Do creative writers rise above these journalistic clichés? Not according to Ben Blatt, who analysed a large sample of literary and popular fiction for his book Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve. His number-crunching revealed, among other things, that male fictional characters habitually ‘mutter’, ‘shout’ and ‘chuckle’, while female characters ‘murmur’, ‘scream’ and ‘weep’. Other patterns were influenced by the sex of the author as well as the character. Male authors were more reluctant than female ones to allow their male characters to ‘sob’; and in their books it was usually female characters, not male ones, who ‘interrupted’.

This particular finding caught many readers’ attention because it’s the opposite of ‘realistic’ in the everyday sense of the word (in real life women do not interrupt more than men). But gender stereotyping can function as a ‘realist’ device in the more technical sense. Even if a stereotype is factually inaccurate, if it fits with readers’ common-sense beliefs it can help to make a fictional world believable.

As feminists have often pointed out, though, our beliefs about men and women are not just things we bring from our real-life experience to our reading; they are also things we may get from our reading and take back into the non-fictional world. I was reminded of this recently when a colleague told a story about a conversation she’d had with her children, who were insisting that ‘mummies don’t go out to work’. ‘Where’, she asked them, ‘does daddy drop me off every day when he’s taking you to school?’ They answered without hesitation: ‘work’. But knowing their own mother went out to work hadn’t prevented them from absorbing the stereotype of mothers as stay-at-home parents.

Concern about what children might be absorbing from the books they read has prompted a number of feminist researchers to analyse the language used in children’s fiction—including the words used to describe characters’ speech. One researcher, Sally Hunt, analysed the verbs of speaking used in some of the most successful children’s book series of the last 75 years: Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventures, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. And despite the differences of period, genre and target audience, she found there were patterns which recurred across the sample.

One of these patterns related to the distribution of verbs which tell you what action an utterance is performing. Verbs suggesting authority were more typical of male characters, and verbs suggesting deference were more typical of female ones. ‘Ordered’, for instance, was 77% male, whereas ‘begged’ was 68% female. Some actions, like ‘giggling’, were off-limits to male characters, while others, like ‘boasting’, were virtually an all-male preserve.

Hunt also remarks on authors’ fondness for verbs which allude to the vocal qualities of speech. In her sample, male characters’ verbs often implied low pitch (e.g. ‘he bellowed/roared’) whereas female characters’ verbs emphasised high pitch (e.g. ‘she shrieked/screamed’). It’s interesting that this contrast features so prominently in books for and about children, because the physiological differences which produce it in adults do not develop until puberty. But like the ‘squeaking’ and ‘barking’ attributed to female politicians in the sketch I quoted earlier, words like ‘bellow’ and ‘scream’ are rarely intended just to evoke the sound of the speaker’s voice: they are also code for emotional responses like anger, surprise and fear. Associating these words with either male or female speakers is thus a covert way of telling readers which emotions are typical of each sex.

The representation of male and female speech in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books has been investigated further by Maeve Eberhardt, who approaches the question through a detailed comparison of two characters, Hermione and Ron. As Eberhardt notes, Hermione is widely considered a ‘strong’ female character: Rowling herself has described her as the ‘brightest’ of the three friends, and she is also portrayed as morally courageous. But are her intelligence, strength and courage reflected in descriptions of her verbal behaviour?

Eberhardt’s answer is ‘yes and no’. In some respects, she finds that Hermione and Ron are treated similarly. Across the series as a whole they are given approximately equal amounts of reported speech, and the neutral ‘said’ is by far the commonest verb of speaking for both of them. The number of other verbs used to describe their speech is also approximately the same.

But the verbs themselves are not the same. When Eberhardt examined ‘unique’ verbs—those which were only ever used about one character—she found that Hermione’s tended to imply strong emotions, especially fear and sadness (they included ‘screamed’, ‘squealed’, ‘shrieked’, ‘squeaked’, ‘wailed’ and ‘whimpered’). Ron’s unique verbs, conversely, included a number (such as ‘mumbled’, ‘grumbled’ and ‘grunted’) which suggested emotional disengagement. The two characters were also distinguished by the frequency with which certain verbs were used about them. Both of them ‘whisper’ and ‘gasp’, but Hermione does those things about three times more often than Ron. He, on the other hand, does five times as much ‘muttering’ as she does, and over fifteen times as much ‘yelling’.

Eberhardt also looked at the use of adverbials to modify verbs of speaking (as in ‘he said, rather pleadingly’). Since Hermione is meant to be the clever one, you might expect her adverbials to include a high proportion relating to intellectual or mental states (e.g. ‘thoughtfully’, ‘logically’, ‘sceptically’). But in fact most of them are about her feelings: her unique adverbs do include ‘seriously’, but that occurs less often than either ‘timidly’ or ‘sadly’. And the most frequent of the adverbial modifiers which are only applied to Hermione’s speech is that old sexist cliché ‘shrilly’.

Since this study only compares two characters, it might be argued that the patterns it uncovers have less to do with their gender than with their distinctive qualities as individuals. What the reported speech verbs tell us is simply that Ron is the kind of person who mutters and grumbles, while Hermione is the kind who wails and shrieks. But I don’t think that argument will wash, given that other studies, like Sally Hunt’s and Ben Blatt’s, have found the same general patterns, and even some of the same specific word-choices, in a range of other texts. Generations of male fictional characters have expressed themselves by muttering and bellowing, while their female counterparts have screamed and spoken ‘shrilly’. These verbal and vocal habits could not be less individual, or more gender-stereotyped.

They are also remarkably persistent. A children’s writer starting out today wouldn’t be able to build a successful career on stories like the ones I read as a child, in which boys had adventures and girls helped mummy make the sandwiches. That kind of sexism is much less common now. Yet successful writers can still present children with a linguistic division of labour –boys giving orders and girls asking questions, boys bellowing and roaring while girls scream, squeal and giggle—that doesn’t seem to have changed since the 1950s.

I’m not accusing these authors of deliberately reproducing stereotypes. I’d be surprised if they had any conscious awareness of the patterns revealed by analyses of their work. But if we accept that those patterns both reflect and perpetuate sexism, perhaps we should be challenging writers to make a conscious effort to break away from them.

For those who want to avoid sexist clichés, whether in fiction or journalism, the research I’ve discussed suggests several top tips:

  1. Check you’re not consistently pairing minimal descriptions of male speech (‘he said’) with highly elaborate descriptions of female speech (‘she enunciated crisply’/ ‘she gasped in horror’).
  2. Go easy on the vocalisation verbs (like ‘growled’ or ‘squeaked’) which differentiate male and female speakers overtly by pitch and covertly by emotional state. And you’re going to use them, don’t make a habit of picking more ‘extreme’ ones for female speakers (if a boy ‘shouts’ or ‘yells’, why does a girl have to ‘shriek’?)
  3. Try not to give all the ‘thinky’ verbs to male speakers and all the ‘feely’ verbs to female ones.
  4. Watch out for the speech act trap–don’t let conversations be all about male speakers ‘asserting’, ‘instructing’ and ‘explaining’ while female ones ‘ask’, ‘suggest’ and ‘agree’.

The way I’ve phrased these points (‘go easy on X’, ‘don’t make a habit of Y’) is deliberate: they aren’t meant to be blanket prohibitions. As I’ve said a million times on this blog, context is all: any word–even ‘shrilly’–can be the right word if the context calls for it.  What you want to avoid is not specific words, it’s the kind of regular pattern that results from the habitual, unthinking repetition of the same stereotypical formulas.

Precisely because we’ve encountered them so often, phrases like ‘he muttered’ and ‘she murmured’ or ‘he yelled’ and ‘she screamed’ may seem obvious and ‘natural’; but really there’s nothing natural about them. On the contrary, they are products of our cultural obsession with magnifying gender differences, or imposing them where they don’t exist. In reality, men and women use language to perform the same acts and express the same emotions. Girls give orders and boys make suggestions; women chuckle and men have been known to scream. If we can cope with this complexity in our face-to-face encounters, why can’t it be reflected in our descriptions of the way people talk?



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.




2017: the year in language and feminism

Back in 2015, in this blog’s first end-of-year round-up, I noted that the year had started inauspiciously, with Time magazine putting ‘feminism’ on its list of annoying words that deserved to be banned.  The label was overused, they said; celebrities in particular were guilty of ‘throwing it around like ticker-tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade’.

To say that the mood has changed since then would be an understatement. No-one seemed surprised when a leading US dictionary, Merriam-Webster, named ‘feminism’ as its Word of the Year. ‘Feminism’, the announcement explained, was one of the most looked-up words of 2017, and spikes in the number of look-ups coincided with important news stories, from the anti-Trump women’s marches in January to the #metoo campaign this autumn. As for Time, its current cover features ‘the silence breakers’–a group of women, feminists, and in some cases celebrities, who spoke out about sexual harassment and who have collectively been chosen as the magazine’s Person of the Year for 2017.

But I’m not feeling the urge to crack a bottle of celebratory champagne. While it’s good to see the F-word being used without apology, it’s hard to avoid the rather depressing conclusion that what has done most to raise feminism’s profile over the last 12 months is the resurgence of an equally unapologetic anti-feminism. This was not a year when women forged ahead, it was a year when things got bad enough to prompt them to fight back. The display of defiance was cheering; the conditions that produced it were not.

Those conditions were reflected in what I blogged about this year. Looking back, I see that one recurring theme was the way women are let down by the language used to report or comment on sexual harassment, abuse and violence. In July I wrote about the banal sexism of the clichés used in reporting so-called ‘family tragedies’, where a man kills his partner and their children, and sometimes follows this by taking his own life. Later, as attention focused on sexual harassment in Hollywood, in the Houses of Parliament and in a host of more ‘ordinary’ workplaces, I criticised the media’s use of vague, euphemistic terms like ‘inappropriate behaviour’.

Without denying that this is a challenging subject to report on, I’m increasingly convinced that wrapping the ugly realities up in bland, inexplicit language is not the answer. It doesn’t help the ‘silence-breakers’ to feel heard, nor the wider public to understand what’s really happening. What inexplicitness does do, however–and we’ve seen plenty of examples–is make it easier for defenders of the status quo to minimise the problem or recycle popular myths about what causes it (Will Saletan’s suggestion that we should teach girls to ‘say no firmly’ was the starting point for one of my most-read posts this year).

One of the many things that’s wrong with the ‘just say no’ approach is that a lot of men do not respond well to a woman telling them what to do. (Plenty of women don’t like it much either.) Our ingrained cultural resentment of female authority was another subject I addressed in several of this year’s blog posts. This attitude shows up in what I called the gender ‘respect gap’, a tendency to downgrade women’s status which is manifested in, for instance, the non-use of professional titles for women doctors and academics, or the automatic assumption that married women should be called by their husband’s last name. These small insults are difficult to challenge, partly because individual women may not realise that their own experience exemplifies a more general pattern, but also because complaining about them seems petty or self-aggrandising.

There are also, of course, less subtle ways of using language to put women in their place. These are especially common in the political sphere, where they are also difficult to challenge because their targets are afraid of appearing ‘weak’. Women know they are vulnerable to the charge of being ‘over-sensitive’, too delicate to cope with the proverbial ‘rough and tumble’ of democratic debate—though few male politicians have any first-hand experience of the kind of abuse their female colleagues have to deal with.

Speaking in Parliament in July, the Labour MP Diane Abbott quoted one of the many abusive tweets she had received during the recent General Election campaign, saying she should be hung ‘if they can find a tree big enough to take the fat bitch’s weight’ (and that was a rare case where the sender didn’t throw in the N-word). The Prime Minister Theresa May has been described by her own Conservative colleagues as ‘mummy’ and ‘a bloody difficult woman’, while the press has depicted her as a stiletto-heeled dominatrix and, in one recent cartoon, the 1950s ‘call girl’ Christine Keeler. You don’t have to admire May or support her party (ditto for Abbott and hers) to see this kind of verbal and visual representation as an attack on all women who hold, or might aspire to hold, positions of authority and power.

On the other side of the gender respect gap live men who have somehow convinced themselves and others that their every random thought, no matter how commonplace, foolish or offensive, deserves our fullest attention and most enthusiastic applause. This year’s notable examples included the whiny and verbose Google memo-writer James Damore, the Uber director David ‘No Filter’ Bonderman (whose response to the idea of recruiting more women to the Board was to worry that more women would mean ‘more talking’), and the PR guru Richard Edelman, who suggested, during an all-male panel discussion at the industry’s annual ‘Hall of Femme’ [sic] event, that if women wanted to be successful they should try ‘speaking up more loudly’. It’s true that these men’s contributions did not go unchallenged (Damore was fired, and Bonderman resigned), but it’s also true that their brand of masculinity—glib, cocky, untroubled by self-doubt—remains our cultural prototype for what leadership looks like.

Mary Beard has pondered this phenomenon in her recently-published book Women and Power: A Manifesto, where she points out that its roots are very deep: ‘as far back as we can see in Western history there is a radical separation—real, cultural and imaginary—between women and power’.  She doesn’t, however, advocate the liberal solution which I’ve criticised so frequently on this blog, encouraging women to be more like men. As she observes,

You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.

Changing the structure has always been the project of feminism, at least in its more radical forms. But as we’ve seen very clearly over the last year and a half, patriarchal power structures are resilient: they persist, and they adapt. We will need to do the same. Happy New Year, and don’t let the bastards grind you down.



Men behaving inappropriately

In Britain we are currently in the grip of an epidemic of something called ‘inappropriate behaviour’.  Stories about this worrying disease were all over this week’s newspapers. The Sun reported that Deputy Prime Minister Damian Green had been accused of ‘inappropriate behaviour towards a woman 30 years his junior’. The Independent informed its readers that Conservative Party aides had compiled ‘a list of three dozen Conservative MPs accused of inappropriate behaviour’. ITV news, meanwhile, quoted Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins, who ‘absolutely and categorically’ denied allegations of, you guessed it, inappropriate behaviour.

It wasn’t just politicians: this infection originated in the entertainment industry (with Harvey Weinstein as Patient Zero), and a week before things kicked off at Westminster, the British theatre director Max Stafford-Clark had issued a statement in which, according to The Stage, he ‘wholeheartedly apologised for any inappropriate behaviour towards members of staff’ at the theatre company he previously ran. As the virus spread, another theatre, the Old Vic, was accused of ‘turning a blind eye’ to the inappropriate behaviour of its former director Kevin Spacey.

Clearly there’s a lot of it about. But what exactly is ‘inappropriate behaviour’?

According to one website I consulted,

Inappropriate behavior is any behavior that is not in line with societal standards and expectations.

Really? Murder, torture and terrorism are ‘not in line with societal standards and expectations’, but we would hardly describe them as ‘inappropriate’. A murderer who tried to express remorse by saying ‘I wholeheartedly apologise for my inappropriate behaviour towards the person I stabbed to death’ would display a total lack of understanding of the gravity of the crime. The thing about ‘inappropriate’ as a criticism is that it has little, if any, moral force. Being ‘appropriate’ is a matter of decorum, observing the correct social forms for a given setting or occasion. ‘Inappropriate’ is what you call a solecism or a breach of etiquette, like turning up to a formal dinner in running shorts when the invitation specified black tie.

The definitions given in dictionaries for ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ reflect this association with what’s ‘good manners’ or ‘good taste’. Merriam-Webster’s illustrative examples for ‘appropriate’ are things like ‘red wine would have been a more appropriate choice with the meal’; its list of synonyms includes the words ‘applicable’, ‘apt’, ‘befitting’, ‘becoming’, ‘felicitous’, ‘proper’ and ‘suitable’. ‘Inappropriate’ is illustrated with ‘her informal manner seemed totally inappropriate for the occasion’. But my intuitions tell me that the usage exemplified by the news reports I’ve quoted, where ‘inappropriate’ doesn’t just mean ‘indecorous’ or ‘unsuitable’, has become a lot more common in recent years.  When did we start using the word this way, and why? How did bad behaviour become ‘inappropriate’?

I can’t claim to have done a comprehensive analysis, but one thing I did do was search COHA, the Corpus of Historical American English (a large sample of authentic US texts spanning the period 1810-2009), looking for the phrase ‘inappropriate behavior’. This search returned no examples earlier than 1988. At that point, and continuing into the 1990s, the examples begin to proliferate: they turn up in a range of text-types including fiction and journalism as well as academic or scientific writing. And what they suggest is that ‘inappropriate behavior’ belongs, or originally belonged, to the register of psychology and therapy.  Here are a few examples taken from different kinds of sources:

At the time I thought he was displaying inappropriate behavior, Jason said. I thought he was paranoid and delusional (source: fiction)

This variable assesses the extent to which the parents have to exert external control…to reduce the child’s level of activity, negative emotion, inappropriate behavior, and misconduct (source: academic text)

Ask yourself whether your anticipated discomfort stems from your sister’s inappropriate behavior as your guest in the past (source: magazine problem page)

Notice that none of these quotes refers specifically to sexually ‘inappropriate behavior’. The first (and in fact, the only clear) example of that usage in COHA comes from a 2004 academic article on sex addiction:

We should also consider the possibility that this self-description may be reinforced through the culture of sex addicts groups providing a form of excuse, if not justification, for their inappropriate behavior.

For academic psychologists and therapists, the attraction of the term ‘inappropriate’ lies precisely in its avoidance of overt moral judgment. Though it isn’t entirely nonjudgmental (calling behaviour ‘inappropriate’ is clearly a negative assessment), it is less loaded than, say, ‘deviant’ (let alone more everyday evaluative terms like ‘bad’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘sickening’), and this allows the user to maintain the appearance of scientific objectivity (‘I’m not making my own judgment on this behaviour, I’m just pointing out that it is “not in line with societal standards and expectations”‘).

But when this language gets taken up in other contexts, from news reporting to everyday conversation, its deliberate blandness has a different effect. ‘Inappropriate’ becomes a euphemism, a way of downplaying or concealing what is really going on (which in many recently reported cases is physical and/or sexual assault). And because of the word’s long association, outside therapy-speak, with matters of etiquette or decorum, the description of sexual harassment as ‘inappropriate behaviour’ reinforces the idea (unselfconsciously expressed by a number of men who have been interviewed on the subject this week) that calling a woman ‘sugar-tits’ or touching her body without her consent is nothing more than bad manners or poor taste. It’s a breach of proper workplace etiquette rather than a breach of the other person’s rights.

Recent media reports have been full of expressions which trivialise the issue of sexual harassment and–let’s not mince our own words here–sexual violence. ‘Sleaze’, for example. And the tone-deaf tabloidism ‘sex pest’.  But to my mind, ‘inappropriate behaviour’ is the worst, most insidious offender.  Because it isn’t just a tabloid cliché. In fact, it’s more like the opposite– a formula that makes its user sound educated, serious, and disinterested–untouched by the combined prurience and moralism with which the tabloids approach anything to do with sex.

Of course, it’s not just journalists who use the phrase ‘inappropriate behaviour’: often they’re quoting other sources, like the political parties’ announcements that yet another MP has been suspended, or the statements made by MPs themselves. It’s also a common formula in workplace policies and guidelines. It’s become established across a whole range of expert discourses (scientific, therapeutic, educational, managerial), because it’s both usefully generic (covering the proverbial multitude of sins) and emotionally flat. It conjures up no vivid picture, evokes no visceral response: it isn’t exactly neutral, but it’s bloodless and bureaucratic.

Yet if recent events have shown us anything, they have surely shown us that the bureaucratic approach to sexual harassment has got us precisely nowhere. All the policies and procedures and guidelines and hotlines have not delivered justice to the complainants who tried to use them, or curbed powerful men’s enthusiasm for behaving ‘inappropriately’. By contrast, the stories which have circulated under the banner of #metoo have been specific, visceral, and shocking–and they have forced at least some organisations to take decisive action.

There are many things we will need to change if we are to make endemic sexual harassment a thing of the past. But we could start by changing our language: in particular, we could stop calling harassment ‘inappropriate behaviour’. It isn’t ‘inappropriate’, it is wrong, unjust, abusive and harmful. In its most serious forms it’s also criminal. I said earlier that no one ever describes murder as ‘inappropriate behaviour’; actually that’s just as true of less serious and non-violent crimes like burglary or embezzlement. The fact that we do habitually describe even the most egregious cases of sexual harassment in this bland, euphemistic, minimizing language is a sign of how little regard we have for those who suffer it, and how much we are (still) willing to concede to the perpetrators.

In the last few weeks, to be sure, a lot of individual perpetrators have been publicly named and shamed. But we also need to name and shame the larger phenomenon–or institution–which they are part of.  People don’t lose their jobs, their reputations and at the extreme their liberty, because their behaviour was ‘inappropriate’. Even low-level harassment is a misuse of power, and the kind that attracts sanctions causes serious harm. The language we use should not deny, diminish or excuse that.

Rhetorical questions

With the annual round of party conferences in full swing, it’s peak season for old-fashioned political speech-making, with speeches crafted in advance to be delivered in person to a live and often boisterous audience. I say ‘old-fashioned’ because in the age of TV, Twitter and TED talks, the traditional art of political oratory is often said to be in decline: there’s little doubt that it’s become less important as other genres and media have become more so. But ‘great’ political speeches still have an iconic cultural status, as Phillip Collins, a former speechwriter for Tony Blair, reminded Times readers last week when he published a list of his all-time top ten. They were:

  1. Winston Churchill, ‘This was their finest hour’ (1940)
  2. Martin Luther King, ‘I have a dream’ (1968)
  3. Abraham Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address (1863)
  4. Queen Elizabeth I, speech to the troops at Tilbury (1588)
  5. Jawaharlal Nehru, ‘A tryst with destiny’, speech greeting India’s independence (1947)
  6. Nelson Mandela, ‘an ideal for which I am prepared to die’, speech to the South African Supreme Court (1964)
  7. John F. Kennedy, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’, Inauguration speech (1961)
  8. Emmeline Pankhurst, ‘The laws that men have made’ (1908)
  9. William Wilberforce, ‘Let us put an end to this inhuman traffic’, anti-slavery speech in Parliament (1789)
  10. Barack Obama, ‘I have never been more hopeful’ (2012).

This list (though limited to speeches made in English—lest we forget, other languages are available) is in many ways traditional and predictable. It obeys, for instance, the unbreakable rule that any ranking compiled for a British publication must put Churchill in first place (whereas the US equivalent will always give that honour to an American). It includes a number of speakers who turn up on just about every list of this type—not only Churchill, King and Kennedy but also Lincoln, Mandela and–increasingly–Obama. And as is also traditional, there are not many women on it.

In fairness to Phillip Collins I should say that two women is actually a higher number than most list-compilers manage. Trawling through a sample of other ‘greatest speeches of all time’ lists reveals that most of them feature just one token woman, while some contain none at all. Elizabeth I, Collins’s first female choice, quite often fills the token woman slot, despite the fact that she may never have made the speech in question (the text we are familiar with–the one about having the heart of a King in the body of a weak and feeble woman–appeared in a letter written nearly 40 years after the event). Other popular picks include the ‘iron ladies’ Margaret Thatcher (‘the lady’s not for turning’) and Golda Meir. The more progressive list-compilers sometimes award the prize, as Collins does, to a suffragist/suffragette like Emmeline Pankhurst, Susan B. Anthony, or occasionally Sojourner Truth.

It is not surprising that men predominate in the historical canon of great speeches. The speeches we remember as ‘great’ are typically delivered by someone in a position of authority (six of the speakers in the Times top ten spoke as the monarch, president or prime minister of their country), often on some solemn national occasion (like the moment preceding or following a battle, the inauguration of a president or, in Nehru’s case, a new independent state) and in an august public setting (like the courtroom for Mandela, or Parliament for Churchill and Wilberforce). With few exceptions, until the 20th century, women were excluded from most of the roles and many of the public forums where this kind of ‘high’ oratory was practised.

Emmeline Pankhurst’s immediate predecessors, the abolitionist and suffragist women of the 19th century, fought a prolonged battle for their right to advance their causes through public speaking. The problem they faced was that women’s public speech, particularly if the audience was mixed and the subject political, was not merely disapproved of, it was considered scandalous, and condemned in much the same terms as adultery and prostitution. In the 1830s, Congregationalist ministers in the USA issued a letter warning that a woman who presumed to give lectures, or address a political meeting, would ‘not only cease to bear fruit, but fall in shame and dishonour in the dust’. This attitude provoked considerable anger among politically active women. In 1848, when delegates assembled in Seneca Falls for the first Convention on Women’s Rights, they adopted two tartly-worded resolutions hitting back at their critics and insisting on their right to a public platform:

Resolved, That the objection of indelicacy and impropriety, which is so often brought against woman when she addresses a public audience, comes with a very ill grace from those who encourage, by their attendance, her appearance on the stage, in the concert, or in the feats of the circus.

Resolved, therefore, That, …it is demonstrably the right and duty of woman, equally with man, to promote every righteous cause, by every righteous means; and especially in regard to the great subjects of morals and religion, it is self-evidently her right to participate with her brother in teaching them, both in private and in public, by writing and by speaking, by any instrumentalities proper to be used, and in any assemblies proper to be held.

But that was 170 years ago. Today, though women continue to be attacked for speaking out (the contemporary weapons of choice being rape and death threats rather than warnings of infertility and eternal damnation), they do now have a voice in all the forums which once excluded them. They speak in courtrooms, to congregations, in Parliament and at party conferences. So why don’t they feature in lists of great speakers from the late 20th and 21st centuries? Do we really have to go back to 1908, let alone 1588, to find a truly memorable speech by a woman?

The Centre for Women and Democracy (CWD) says ‘of course not’. They point out that there’s a vicious circle: women don’t get included in the standard lists and anthologies of great speeches, so their words aren’t preserved and studied, and that just reinforces the idea that women don’t do oratory. To redress the balance, the CWD website offers its own list of thirteen outstanding political speeches by women. It includes most of the usual suspects (no Elizabeth I, but we do get Emmeline Pankhurst, Sojourner Truth and Margaret Thatcher), along with notable speeches by Aung San Suu Kyi, Barbara Castle, Benazir Bhutto, Hillary Clinton (her Beijing ‘women’s rights are human rights’ speech), Bernadette Devlin, Indira Gandhi, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, Mary Robinson, Anita Roddick and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

There are many more of these ‘alternative’ lists of great speeches by women. A blog about women and public speaking called The Eloquent Woman has an index which runs to 262 entries, and a series of lists (with links to transcripts, video clips and expert commentary) organised by theme, genre and type of speaker (the selection includes speeches made by activists, athletes, entertainers and scientists, as well as politicians). Some of the historical choices were new to me (I hadn’t previously come across Nellie McClung, a Canadian suffrage campaigner who staged a debate on the question ‘Should men vote?’ in 1914); others were useful reminders about the oratorical skills displayed by women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Barbara Jordan and Eleanor Roosevelt. And there is also a decent selection of speeches by contemporary women activists like Malala Yousafzai and Caroline Criado-Perez.

Interest in this subject is not confined to educational and political websites. In March this year Marie Claire magazine published its own all-female top ten, which featured Virginia Woolf, Emmeline Pankhurst, Elizabeth I, Hillary Clinton, Sojourner Truth, Nora Ephron, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gloria Steinem’s 1971 ‘Address to the Women of America’Julia Gillard’s 2012 ‘misogyny speech’ and Maya Angelou’s performance of her poem ‘On the pulse of morning’ at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. Many of the same selections turn up in most of the all-female lists I’ve looked at, suggesting that in effect there is a parallel ‘women’s canon’.

The fact that such a thing can be constructed must surely give the lie to the (still widespread) belief that women are less skilled in the art of oratory, or that they are simply not very interested in it (an idea which has been promoted both by evolutionary psychologists, who argue that flashy verbal performances of all kinds are an evolved male strategy for attracting mates, and by some feminists, who contend that women prefer collaborative forms of exchange, or that they are less concerned with orating and more concerned with getting shit done). Of course, it’s true that not everyone is equally good at public speaking: truly gifted performers are relatively rare, and there are many people who find any kind of public utterance a hideous ordeal. But I don’t think there’s a clear-cut male-female divide here. It does women no favours to suggest that there is something inherently male about the ability to use language to persuade, inspire or move an audience.

But in that case, you might ask, what keeps all but a tiny handful of women speakers off ‘all-time greats’ lists like the one in the Times? If they’re really as good as men, why do they need to be separated off into a parallel canon of their own?

This is, of course, a question which has also been asked in the past about art, literature, philosophy and science, and the answer usually turns out to be at least partly about sexism and double standards. In the case of public speaking, one thing that works against women is the ingrained cultural resentment of female authority which I’ve written about here, and the associated tendency to judge women’s linguistic performance negatively, using criteria which are not applied to men (those shrill voices! That grating tone! And just look at that face/hair/pantsuit/those tits!) Not only does this kind of criticism lead to an unjust downgrading of women’s actual verbal skills, anticipating and trying to pre-empt it can affect the quality of their performance, by making it more difficult for a female speaker to feel at ease when addressing an audience.

I also think there’s another kind of sexism which comes into play when people are choosing great political speeches. It’s clear when you look at the lists that greatness isn’t just about the speaker’s (or the speech-writer’s) rhetorical skill. ‘Great’ speeches are also remembered for defining a historical moment, while at the same time expressing an idea or a sentiment which transcends its time and place to convey some more universal human truth. Here, women—and more especially feminists, whose subject is their own and other women’s condition—encounter a version of the more general ‘default male’ problem: whereas men’s political concerns are seen as universal, women’s are seen as particular to women. It’s striking in this connection that over half of the speeches selected by the Centre for Women and Democracy are specifically about women’s rights—even though many of the speakers (politicians like Benazir Bhutto, Barbara Castle and Hillary Clinton) made speeches on other subjects too. It seems women speakers are most likely to attract attention when they stay in their allotted female lane, but at the same time it is held against them that they are ‘only’ talking about ‘women’s issues’. Even something like Hillary Clinton’s ‘women’s rights are human rights’ speech in Beijing (ironically, since the whole point of it was to assert women’s equal claim to the status of human beings) gets relegated to the category of the non-universal, and therefore the not-really-great.

In the end, though, does it really matter how many or how few women appear on lists of great orators? These lists may make good clickbait, but in the end they’re surely meaningless: real politics is not a varsity debating competition in which Churchill faces off against Lincoln, King takes on Mandela, Emmeline Pankhurst competes with Sojourner Truth. These were different individuals responding to different situations (on three continents over a period of 200 years), and ranking them against each other is absurd.

It might also be argued, as I said at the beginning, that this particular genre—the set-piece formal speech—has ceased to matter much at all. Eloquence is not the valuable commodity it once was: today’s most successful politicians are not the ones who can deliver a fine oration, but the ones who know how to use contemporary media to put their messages, and their personalities, across. Just look at the present occupant of the White House, perhaps the least eloquent US president of all time. Then again, it’s only about a decade since the US first elected Barack Obama, whose eloquence the list-compilers now compare to Kennedy’s and Lincoln’s–and whose inspiring way with words was clearly a major asset in his campaign. Jeremy Corbyn, too, though not in Obama’s league as an orator, has shown with his packed public meetings and rallies that there is still something very powerful about the live, unmediated connection between a political speaker and the audience which has come together to hear them.

So, I don’t think it’s true that speeches no longer matter. They aren’t the only form of political communication that matters, but they remain part of our political culture, and indeed of our culture more generally (tweets and memes have not replaced speeches at weddings, funerals, retirement dos and the like). And if the ancient tradition of speech-making still has a place in modern life, then it does matter whether women are acknowledged in the record of that tradition. The inclusion of a single token woman on every list does not do their contribution justice. Aficianados of political oratory could learn a lot from some of the items in The Eloquent Woman‘s index–beginning with the fact that they exist.


Postscript: I asked readers to nominate inspiring women/feminist speakers, and here are some of their suggestions.

The earliest speech anyone mentioned was Helen Keller’s call to ‘Strike against war’, from 1916. The main thing most people know about Helen Keller concerns the way she learnt to communicate after a childhood illness left her deaf and blind; but as an adult she was a committed socialist who campaigned actively for workers’ rights, women’s suffrage and world peace. This stirring speech, made in Carnegie Hall in New York City, attacked the then-ongoing campaign to prepare Americans for war, on the grounds that war would sacrifice workers’ lives to protect the interests of capitalists.

Moving on to the second half of the 20th century, several readers nominated Angela Davis as a powerful and compelling speaker (‘even when I don’t agree with her’, added one). Here’s a speech Davis made in 1969–a call to resist war abroad and fight oppression at home which has something in common with Helen Keller’s oration more than 50 years earlier. And here you can watch Davis speaking at this year’s Women’s March in Washington DC. That event was prompted by the election of Donald Trump; another memorable attack on Trump, which several readers mentioned, was made during the campaign, in a speech delivered by Michelle Obama in New Hampshire last October. (Of all the recent speeches I watched while writing this postscript, this was the one which I thought displayed the most impressive ability to connect with an audience both intellectually and emotionally.)

But it wasn’t all about women from the US. Among British politicians, readers nominated Green MP Caroline Lucas, and Labour’s Emily Thornberry, as skilful and inspiring speakers. Some also reminded me that many excellent women speakers have been trades unionists, citing Unite’s Julie Phipps as a contemporary case in point. And one reader drew my attention to the speech made at this year’s Labour’s conference by 16-year old school student Lauren Stocks. Her impassioned performance–and the ovation it received–underlines my earlier point that the art of speech-making is still alive, still relevant, and still capable of reaching people in a way other forms of communication do not.


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.



A very British sexism

Last week I inadvertently caught the beginning of Question Time, a long-running weekly political panel show which I have loathed and detested for many years. As luck would have it, I switched on at the very moment when its smug host David Dimbleby called on an audience member to ask the first question. Which was: ‘do we need a bloody difficult woman to negotiate Brexit?’ The studio audience applauded (they always do, and I have no idea why), while I reached, simultaneously, for the TV remote and the sickbag.

‘A bloody difficult woman’ was originally a comment made by the veteran Tory politician Kenneth Clarke about the present Prime Minister Theresa May. He came out with it (during what he wrongly assumed to be a private, off-mic conversation) during last summer’s Conservative leadership contest, in which May was one of several candidates; and he clearly didn’t mean it as a positive assessment. But like Donald Trump’s rather similar description of Hillary Clinton–‘such a nasty woman’–it quickly took on a new life as an empowering feminist slogan. It became a popular hashtag on Twitter, started appearing on badges and T-shirts, and was hymned on the Telegraph’s women’s page as ‘the ultimate compliment’.

The same paper offered a handy guide to the various subtypes of ‘BDW’, personified by women like the (late) TV dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse and the (fictional) Dowager Countess of Downton. Jan Moir in the Mail added Anne Robinson and Miss Piggy to the list. Moir also argued that Clarke’s insult was really a compliment. When a man calls a woman ‘difficult’, she mused,

that’s a tacit acknowledgement of [her] power. It means: ‘I can’t control her.’ It means: ‘She won’t do what I tell her to do.’ It means: ‘To be honest, I am a little bit scared of her’.

While I don’t agree with Moir that women should be flattered by this reaction, I do think her observation points to an uncomfortable truth which many mainstream discussions of sexism gloss over. Those discussions often define the problem women face as getting people (especially men) to ‘take them seriously’. Just this week, for instance, Girlguiding UK released some research which showed that girls and young women are very aware of the sexist treatment of female politicians, and it’s putting them off engaging in politics. News reports quoted 16-year old Emma Taggart, who complained about the excessive attention paid by the media to women’s bodies and their clothes: as she said,

Focusing on a politician’s appearance instead of what she has to say sends the message that even women in the most powerful roles in the country aren’t taken seriously.

The same point was made by another women’s organisation, Fawcett, in its 2015 ‘Views not shoes’ campaign against sexist election coverage. But while it isn’t wrong as far as it goes, I find this analysis superficial. The problem isn’t that we as a culture don’t take powerful women seriously. How seriously we take them may be inferred from the lengths we are willing to go to to demonise and undermine them. The real problem is not denial, but resentment of female authority–a resentment which no woman should take as a compliment, since what is ultimately behind it is misogyny.

Trivialising women with comments on their shoes or reducing them to the status of sexual objects (as in the Mail’s now-infamous ‘Legs-it’ photo), legs-for-commentsis only one expression of this resentment, one strategy for putting women (back) in their place. Calling them ‘bloody difficult’ or ‘nasty’ is another. But these codes are relatively simple and transparent. What I want to talk about is another, more insidious code, which is also pervasive in the British media.

The reason for talking about this, of course, is that we’re currently in the middle of another General Election campaign, unexpectedly announced last month by Theresa May. This ‘snap’ election has been widely interpreted as a Brexit version of Churchill’s ‘give us the tools and we will finish the job’–it’s a post-referendum referendum on May’s leadership. But when she first announced it, surprising her party colleagues, it wasn’t Churchill she put them in mind of.  Rather, the Sunday Times reported that ‘Tory MPs…have taken to referring to their leader as “Mummy” in their text exchanges’.

Actually, they’d called her that before: ‘Mummy’ also turned up in Tory tweets during last suheel boysmmer’s battle for the party leadership. GQ helpfully suggested that May was ‘nasty mummy’ to her younger rival Andrea Leadsom’s ‘nice mummy’.  And of course, nasty mummy won; we all know those Tory boys love a bit of discipline. When May became Prime Minister, the front page of the Sun depicted her stiletto heeled foot (she actually favours kitten heels, but why ruin a good dominatrix reference?) coming down on the heads of her hapless male subordinates. The headline, inevitably, was ‘Heel, boys’.

What was the Sun trying to say, though? It’s a Tory paper, it supported the side that won the referendum, and the text on the page implied approval of the party’s choice—’Maggie’ May was another Thatcher, she was going to re-unite the country and deliver Brexit to the people. But the subtext, if something so in-your-face can be called a subtext, was sending another message entirely. Give a woman the whip hand (geddit?) and she’ll treat you like dogs.

This isn’t just about Theresa May, and it isn’t just about the Tories. When Sylvia Shaw and I analysed the press coverage of the 2015 General Election for our book Gender, Power and Political Speech, we noticed a pattern in the way authoritative women were described. Here are a few examples: the first two are about Julie Etchingham, the news presenter who moderated the first TV election debate, and the rest are about Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party.

  1. Our Julie was also in a white jacket that gave her the air of an imperious dental nurse.
  2. This headmistress was not taking any nonsense from the naughty boys and girls at the back of the class.
  3. But the Aussie [Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party] backed the head girl Nicola when she took on the Prime Minister, saying: “I agree with Nicola.”
  4. She was very much like a primary school teacher, bobbing her head up and down, using her hands a lot.
  5. She ticked off Nigel Farage like a hospital matron who has found something nasty in the ward.

The women being described here had featured prominently in a debate watched by millions; one of them also had a day job running a small country. And what did the pundits compare them to? Head girls, primary school teachers, headmistresses, nurses, Matron. This is how female authority is made intelligible: through allusions to a set of archetypal roles in which women have traditionally exercised power–prototypically over children, or over adults infantilised by illness. There was no pattern of analogous references to men: their authority in the political sphere is taken for granted, and does not call for comment or explanation.

In the press reports I’ve quoted, the cultural references writers draw on in their comparisons are noticeably British (and evidently aimed at Britons of a certain age): Malory Towers, St Trinians, Hattie Jacques in the Carry On films. 8615-3006We’d only need to add Nanny, Bertie Wooster’s aunt Agatha and the Dowager Countess of Downton and we’d have the full set of Thoroughly British Battleaxes. These women’s authority is both a joke and a threat (or perhaps I should say, it’s made into a joke to defuse the threat): they’re bossy boots, petty tyrants, and in popular culture often grotesque—ageing, physically unattractive and either sexless or pathologically oversexed ‘man-eaters’.

Another common figure in this gallery of female grotesques is the man in drag, as exemplified by Margaret Thatcher’s Spitting Image puppet. Margaret Thatcher Spitting Image puppetThe running gag on Spitting Image was all about emasculation: Thatcher’s male Cabinet colleagues were portrayed not just as ‘a little bit scared of her’, but as terrified, spineless wimps. One sketch had her ordering a steak, and replying to the waitress’s query ‘what about the vegetables?’ with ‘oh, they’ll have the same as me’.

As this joke demonstrates, resentment of female authority is a weapon that can also be used against men. Whereas authority in women is unnatural and repulsive, in men it is normal and desirable: the unnatural man is the one who lacks authority, or worse, who submits to the authority of a woman. He is ‘henpecked’ or ‘pussy whipped’, allowing the  woman to ‘wear the trousers’. During the 2015 General Election campaign this unnatural role-reversal became a recurring theme in right-wing press commentary on Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon (in case anyone’s forgotten, in the latter stages the Tories leant heavily on the idea that if English people voted Labour they would end up being governed by the SNP). georgeEd and Nicola were compared to George and Mildred, the characters in a 1970s sitcom about an overbearing nagging wife (another of British popular culture’s oversexed grotesques) and her long-suffering henpecked husband.

Then there was this little fable, composed by Matthew Parris for the Times after watching the second TV debate:

Spring is the season when pigeons distract us with their mating dance. The male paces about in an exotic strut, coocooing and puffing out his chest. The female makes a show of mincing away from him. He follows; she sidesteps; he pursues; she retreats. … On Thursday night on the BBC a similar courtship ritual could be observed taking place between two politicians, but with this striking difference. It was the lady in the dove-grey jacket [Sturgeon] coo-cooing with a puffed-out chest, and the gentleman in the dove-grey tie [Miliband] who was being coy.

The Sun, as ever, was briefer and blunter:

Nicola Sturgeon may wear high heels and a skirt, but the eerie silence from noisy ex-leader Alex Salmond proves she eats her partners alive.

All women who aspire to hold positions of power have to negotiate this representation of female authority as unnatural and emasculating (if not actually homicidal). And often, they find themselves trapped in a double bind. Margaret Thatcher, for instance, was damned both for not being enough of a woman and for being too much of one: while Spitting Image was portraying her as a man in drag, the Guardian was accusing her of ‘deliberately exploiting her gender as a weapon’. The writer seems not to have noticed that Thatcher’s gender was already a weapon—primarily one which others could use against her. Understanding this as a fact of life, she did not so much ‘exploit her gender’ as look for ways to turn men’s sexism to her own advantage.

According to her long-time ally Lord (Charles) Powell, one of the strategies she developed enabled her to get her own way in most arguments with her Cabinet colleagues: she would simply stand her ground until they backed down. ‘She knew’, explained Powell, that

private-school-educated British men weren’t brought up to argue with women. Only one or two of [the men in her cabinet] could stand up to that sort of treatment, or if they came from the same background as her… but most of the others got uncomfortable.

British ruling-class men of Thatcher’s generation had been formed by their experiences in an all-male world of public schools and single-sex Oxbridge colleges; as adults, their professional and political networks largely excluded women, except as helpmeets (wives and secretaries). In this milieu, the authority of women (personified by mummy, nanny and Matron) was something you had to put up with as a child, but you knew from an early age that when you grew up it would cease to be relevant. Since women were not your equals, or your rivals, you could afford to treat them with the pretend respect known to the upper classes as chivalry, or being a ‘gentleman’. This class-specific form of sexism was what Thatcher learned to manipulate. (Left-wing women confront a different set of challenges, but that’s a subject for a different post.)

Conservative women like Thatcher can also exploit the fact that authority itself is positively valued on the political right. As much as he or she may resent being bossed by a woman, your average Tory will take a strong female leader over a weak and ineffectual male one. If she passes their political virility test by being tough enough on their hot-button issues (war, national security, crime and immigration), conservatives may be willing to elevate her to the quasi-mythical status of the ‘Iron Lady’.

Despite her record as a hardliner on at least three of the issues mentioned above, Theresa May has not been given the ‘Iron Lady’ title. But it’s no accident that she and her supporters have spent the last two weeks talking incessantly about her ‘strong and stable leadership’. This is simultaneously a dig at her opponent Jeremy Corbyn (who is by implication weak and chaotic), and a message to anyone who might harbour doubts about a woman leader’s strength, determination or resilience. Like Thatcher before her, May is willing to embrace sexist stereotypes, but selectively, to suit her purpose. What she seems to be trying to project in this campaign is a combination of Mummy’s ruthless protectiveness (she’ll give no quarter when it comes to standing up for her British brood) and the stubborn persistence of the ‘bloody difficult woman’.

By now, though, you’re probably wondering what my point is: am I defending women like May and Thatcher? Am I suggesting British feminists should vote Conservative in June? The answer to that last question is no, absolutely not: I certainly won’t be voting for May’s clueless and inflexible leadership myself. To the first question, however, the answer is slightly more complicated. I’m not defending these women’s politics, but I am defending women politicians, and indeed women in general, against attacks which are rooted in misogyny.

No matter how much we despise the women being targeted, feminists shouldn’t applaud when they’re belittled and mocked using the code I’ve described in this post. We shouldn’t join in with the chorus of ‘bloody difficult woman’, ‘time for mummy’, ‘heel, boys’, and we shouldn’t pretend these jibes are really backhanded compliments. As I’ve said, what they express is resentment–and it’s not a specific resentment of right wing women, it’s a more general resentment (seen in varying forms across the political spectrum) of any woman who, as Rebecca West famously put it, ‘does or says anything that distinguishes her from a doormat’. We urgently need other ways of thinking and talking about women in authority: this one is toxic, and it damages us all.