She Speaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women know what ‘safety’ refers to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

 

Why women talk less

This week on Newsnight, Evan Davis talked to three women about all-male panels—a subject made topical by the recent popularity of a tumblr set up to name and shame them. Why, he asked, are women so often un- or under-represented in public forums? Are they reluctant to put themselves forward? Are they deterred by the adversarial nature of the proceedings?

The women offered some alternative suggestions. Women don’t get asked, or if they do it’s assumed you only need one. Women aren’t seen as experts, unless the subject is a ‘women’s issue’. The age-old prejudice against women speaking in public means that any woman who dares to voice her opinions can expect to be deluged with abuse and threats.

But while all-male panels are obviously a problem, they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Just ensuring that women are represented on a panel does not guarantee their voices will be heard.

Popular wisdom holds that women talk incessantly; research shows that in mixed-sex discussions it’s men who do most of the talking. The pattern is consistent, and statistically robust. The settings where it has been documented include not only laboratories, but also school and university classrooms, academic conferences, committee meetings, town meetings, Parliamentary debates and the comments sections of news websites.

Three explanations have been popular since the 1970s.

  1. Women are socialized to be unassertive: they’re reluctant to speak in public, and when they do enter public forums they don’t have the confidence to compete with men.
  2. Women aren’t interested in competing with men: they prefer a co-operative and supportive style of discourse to the adversarial mode that’s typical of male-dominated public forums.
  3. Women are silenced by men’s sexist behaviour. Men interrupt women, talk over them, mansplain to them, ignore their contributions when they do manage to get a word in and give credit to the man who makes the same point two minutes later.

For each diagnosis there’s a corresponding prescription. If the problem is female unassertiveness, the solution is for women to be more assertive. If the problem is that public discussions are conducted according to men’s rules rather than women’s, the solution is to get more women involved (the theory being that as their numbers reach ‘critical mass’, usually put at around 30%, their influence will begin to change the culture). If the problem is sexism, the solution is to challenge men’s behaviour.

If these solutions worked, we’d have cracked the problem long ago. But they don’t work, as we know from both experience and research.

Advice to be assertive is easier to give than to take. Most people in most situations would hesitate to challenge a colleague who interrupts by saying ‘stop interrupting me’. And they’d be right to hesitate: research suggests that people who use the strategies recommended on assertiveness training courses (be direct, make ‘I’ statements, repeat a point until it’s acknowledged) are seen as rude, aggressive and socially inept. If they’re women, the effect is magnified by the perception of their behaviour as ‘unfeminine’.

Increasing women’s numbers to 30%, or even 50% (desirable as that might be for other reasons) does not solve the problem either. The authors of a recent book (aptly titled The Silent Sex) found that men still out-talked women when the group was 60% female. Women only spoke as much as men when they outnumbered them 4:1.

You’re probably thinking: ‘OK then, what’s your solution?’ The truth is, I don’t think there’s a single, simple solution. The problem is more complicated than most discussions acknowledge: it’s not just about women being shrinking violets and/or men being overbearing jerks. Of course those may be factors, but they aren’t the whole story. Ultimately this is a story about the choices both men and women make under conditions of structural sexual inequality.

I know, that’s not exactly a catchy soundbite. But if you want to solve a problem, it helps to understand what you’re dealing with. So, let’s talk about some aspects of the problem that don’t tend to feature in popular accounts.

Women don’t support other women

What happens when people talk is affected by group dynamics. The speakers who contribute most aren’t always the ones who behave most assertively; often they’re the ones who get most support from other people. They are able to gain and hold onto the floor—without needing to act like jerks—because others invite them to speak, listen attentively to what they say, ask them questions and make responses which encourage them to continue. And these people are likely to be men. Women get less support from other speakers of both sexes.

In a study of same-sex group discussions among secondary school pupils, Judith Baxter found that boys who emerged as leaders were able to do so because other boys deferred to their suggestions, echoed their comments and laughed at their jokes. Among girls there were individuals who behaved in similar ways to the dominant boys, but their attempts to take the lead were less successful, because they were not supported by other girls. In fact, they were actively resisted and resented. The class teacher told Baxter that girls did not accept other girls’ authority, whereas no one had a problem with boys taking charge. The girls themselves were blunter, saying: ‘boys aren’t as bitchy as girls. And girls aren’t as bitchy to blokes’.

These girls were policing one another’s behaviour in accordance with the cultural norm which says authority and power are male prerogatives. Consequently they were reproducing, in an all-female group, the same resistance to authoritative female speech that disadvantages women in mixed-sex interactions.

Women are judged by a double standard

The girls in Baxter’s study were participating in a system that rewards girls and women for ‘feminine’ behaviour and punishes them for behaviour deemed ‘unfeminine’. In childhood and adolescence, what mainly keeps girls in line is the threat of being ostracized by their peers. That’s also a consideration for adult women, but they have to worry about other things as well.

For high-profile female public figures—politicians like Hillary Clinton, or public intellectuals like Mary Beard—the price of transgressing the norms of femininity is being pilloried by the media. In the business world your career may be blighted. A study of the performance evaluations given to men and women in the IT industry found that women’s evaluations, but not men’s, frequently included criticisms of their ‘abrasive’ manner. Like ‘bossy’ and ‘strident’ (also words which are rarely applied to men), ‘abrasive’ is code for ‘she talks too much/too forcefully’. It’s a clear double standard: what’s acceptable in men becomes a problem when women do it.

This is one reason why advice to be more assertive can backfire. It also suggests that women who don’t speak up may not have a problem with assertiveness at all. Some may be choosing not to compete directly with men, because they think the costs outweigh the benefits.

Women don’t break the rules

In classroom studies it’s a common finding that boys get more speaking time than girls, and one reason for that is that boys break the rules and get away with it. Rather than waiting for permission to speak, boys call out when they have something to say. Girls do this less often, and teachers’ reaction when they do it is much less tolerant. Something similar has been observed among adults—especially in male-dominated institutions where women are seen, and often see themselves, as ‘interlopers’.

In 1999, two years after the election of a record 119 women MPs, Sylvia Shaw carried out research in the House of Commons to investigate how the women were faring. At first glance it seemed they were holding their own: in proportion to their (much lower) numbers, they were contributing as much as men. But on closer inspection, this only applied to the ‘legal’ part of the debate. Women made far fewer ‘illegal’ interventions—turns defined as ‘out of order’, like comments interjected from a sitting position. At Westminster, illegal contributions make up a fair proportion of the overall proceedings, so by not breaking the rules women were losing out on both airtime and influence.

Shaw related this to their ‘interloper’ status. In interviews, some women told her they consciously avoided rule-breaking, because they wanted to make clear they knew how to conduct themselves (this is classic ‘interloper’ behaviour). But she also found that men were given more license to break the rules. Women who intervened illegally were more likely to be reprimanded by the Speaker.

Women don’t have strength in numbers

119 women MPs may have been a record number, but it was still less than 20% of the total. In public contexts it’s common for men to outnumber women, and this also contributes to their linguistic dominance.

The authors of The Silent Sex conducted an experiment to investigate how women’s participation in group discussion is affected by the gender composition of the group and the procedure used to make decisions. They put people into groups of five, composed to represent every possible male-female ratio, and asked the groups to deliberate on a question about the fairest way to distribute resources. Some groups were instructed to make their decision by majority vote; others were told their decision should be unanimous.

In a hypothetical just world, each person in a group would contribute equally, and each sex would contribute in proportion to its numbers. But that wasn’t what the study found. Women in mostly-male groups took up less than their fair share of the speaking time. By contrast, men in mostly-female groups took at least as much time as they were entitled to.

But the decision-making procedure made a difference. Women in mostly-male groups contributed more (though still less than their share) when decisions were made unanimously. This makes sense: if everyone has to agree, everyone also has to speak. But in groups where women outnumbered men, they did better with majority voting. Unanimous decision-making always helps the minority, and where men are the minority they exploit that to the max. As the researchers explain, ‘minority women leverage unanimous rule to reach equality, whereas minority men leverage it to exceed equality’.

Women don’t benefit from seniority

Most institutions are hierarchical, and the people at the top of the hierarchy have more authority to speak than those lower down. In many cases this puts women at a double disadvantage. As well as being in a minority, they are likely to be concentrated in the most junior positions.

A study of questions after presentations at an astronomy conference found that—in proportion to their numbers—men asked far more questions than women. The researchers explained this as an effect of seniority. Questions at academic conferences function as a display of the questioner’s own expert status, so they tend to be asked by higher-ranking academics. But in astronomy, seniority is gendered. The field was until recently extremely male-dominated; more women have entered it in the last decade, but they are still in the early stages of their careers. How many of them will advance to senior positions, and how quickly, remains to be seen.


The conclusion I draw from research is that in most situations, male linguistic dominance isn’t just a direct result of men being sexist. I’m not denying they can be sexist, and often are. I’m saying this is a hard problem to solve because usually men benefit from several different things working together: their numbers, their seniority, their ‘insider’ (rather than ‘interloper’) status, the preference of both sexes for male authority, and the choice some women make not to compete with men directly. At an abstract level these are all manifestations of the same problem—structural sexual inequality—but there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

So, what can we do to change things?

As a supposed expert on this subject, I often get men telling me about some panel or board or committee they were on where the women barely spoke. What they think they’re proving is that the problem is intractable: that’s just the way women are. I ask them what the gender balance in the group was, how status was distributed, what procedures they followed and how discussions were facilitated. And then I bore them with a few research findings which suggest that if they changed some of those things, they might find women behaving differently. More of us could ask those questions; those of us with some institutional power could also do something about the answers.

Another thing we could do is make a conscious effort to support other women. Standing up for your own rights can make you look like the aggressive one; standing up for someone else’s makes you less vulnerable to that judgment. Rather than ‘stop interrupting me’, we could try ‘just a second, can we hear the end of Linda’s point?’ Or we could try to pre-empt the need for defensive measures by jumping in to acknowledge Linda’s contribution before she gets interrupted.

The way girls and women police their own and each other’s behaviour is another factor that contributes to the problem. Criticizing individuals is not the answer; what we need to do is address the conditions that make their behaviour a rational choice. We could start by examining our own attitudes to women’s speech. Feminists don’t use words like ‘abrasive’ and ‘strident’, but we do sometimes praise women for being nicer than men. If we want to see women in positions of authority, we can’t expect them to behave as if they were not in those positions.

Of course feminists want to see things done differently, with less of the arrogance, aggression and self-aggrandisement we criticize in men. But that doesn’t mean we should idealize the opposite, the deferential, conciliatory and self-effacing behaviour which is expected of women under patriarchy. Masculinity and femininity are both products of the same oppressive system. And we will never be able to change it if women can’t make their voices heard.