Wednesday, March 7, 2012

How Rush Limbaugh is helping me celebrate Women's History Month

I have to confess: I struggle with Women's History Month. Every year when March rolls around, I'm reminded how tough it is to write about an issue like women and public speaking when, as Kathleen Hall Jamieson so succinctly put it, "History has many themes. One of them is that women should be quiet." Not a great start for a post celebrating the month, but true.

As a result, it's tough to explain to incredulous readers of today just what women have been up against through the centuries when it comes to speaking their minds--it just doesn't seem real or relevant. A lot of tactics to stop women from speaking in public have gone underground, coded and covered up, so they're less obvious.

But this Women's History Month, Rush Limbaugh brought obvious back. The month was ushered in by Limbaugh excoriating Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke at length as a "whore" and a "slut" for testifying about the health benefits of contraceptives before a congressional committee.

He did me an enormous favor. Using the word "whore" when a woman speaks in public, or questioning her status based on sex to silence her, is a tradition that goes back to ancient times. By keeping that tradition alive and kicking right here in the 21st century, he's given me a timely and compelling reason to look back on the history. Really, I couldn't have done better myself.

The speaker-as-whore label is just one of many tools used over the centuries to keep women quiet. Depending on the century or the nation you lived in, a woman who spoke "too much" in public--"too much" being "at all" in many cases--might have to wear the painful scold's bridle, a device that would leave your tongue bleeding if you tried to speak, and be displayed in public with it locked over your head and face. You might be put in the stocks, dunked in the lake, or even hung or burned at the stake. Today, in the U.S., we don't see those physical forms of punishment for women who speak in public, but that whore label still gets plenty of use and repetition. I'd say it's the most enduring of the historic tools for silencing women, based on sheer years of use.

Linking women's speech with sex, morals and reproduction goes all the way back to the days of Aristotle, when women were forbidden to speak in the public marketplace because it was believed that speaking interfered with their ability to reproduce. And if you're not going to get married and reproduce, you must be either a whore or an androgynous being, or maybe you're a man masquerading as a woman--or so the thinking went. You were, so to speak, a fluke. As early as the first century in Rome, "Effective female speakers....were labelled androgynes by their admirers," Jamieson notes.

Centuries later, as Gail Collins notes in her book America's Women, "pro-slavery hecklers claimed [Sojourner] Truth was really a man--an accusation frequently thrown at women who spoke in public." (That's a twofer, by the way: The accusation at once negates a woman's skill and sexuality, and praises men's speaking skills.) In Truth's case, the hecklers wanted her to bare her breasts to a group of women to prove she was not a man. Instead, she bared them to the entire assembly of men and women to prove her hecklers wrong and put the shame back on them at the same time.

These days, apparently, you demand that the offending woman speaker make a sex video and post it online, as Limbaugh did. But whether they're merely accused of being whores or more proof is demanded, the message to women is clear: You can be eloquent but not fertile, or a public speaker but not a lady, a mother or even a "real" woman.

Haven't heard the "whore" accusation recently yourself?  Elizabeth Warren, currently a candidate for the Massachusetts state senate, was called a whore by a heckler in November. A Democratic congressman called a female lobbyist a "K Street whore" in 2009.  Hillary Clinton nutcrackers were manufactured and sold during her 2008 presidential campaign, and we had a long discussion about her cleavage that suggested she was being suggestive. And don't forget those photoshopped Sarah-Palin-pinup photos, still easily found online.

Even the Republican National Committee featured Palin on its website in a photo taken from behind as she spoke at its convention, and from the knees down, so all you saw were her her legs and her high heels (see photo at left). Because that's what we're all interested in when a woman is running for Vice President of the United States, isn't it? Let's look at her legs, shall we, instead of listening to what she has to say.

This isn't just a risk for political women, who by definition do a lot of public speaking. Others who speak publicly or just sit in the audience also come in for this kind of treatment:
Danah Boyd described it this way, squarely from the speaker's point of view: 
....what's with the folks who think it's cool to objectify speakers and talk about them as sexual objects? The worst part of backchannels for me is being forced to remember that there are always guys out there who simply see me as a fuckable object. Sure, writing crass crap on public whiteboards is funny... if you're 12. But why why why spend thousands of dollars to publicly objectify women just because you can? This is the part that makes me angry....I don't want to be objectified when I'm speaking - either as a talking head or a sexual toy. I want to inspire, to invite you to think, to spark creative thoughts in your head. 
Maureen Dowd wrote this week from her own experience about a similar attack, giving us a sense of what it feels like:
As a woman who has been viciously slashed by Rush Limbaugh, I can tell you, it’s no fun. At first you think, if he objects to the substance of what you’re saying, why can’t he just object to the substance of what you’re saying? Why go after you in the most personal and humiliating way? still cringe at the thought that your mom might hear the ugly things he said.
I know why: To get you to be quiet. Even if you go on speaking, you've wasted time wondering about this out-of-left-field attack. His hope is that you absorb the shame he's pasting all over your reputation. If it happens enough, you might get discouraged and stop. Or other women might get discouraged and stop speaking publicly, since nuclear terms like these have a fantastic ripple effect. It really doesn't  matter what your viewpoint, political bent or perspective are. You don't need to be speaking about sex, or having sex. You can be any age, speaking on any topic. If you're a woman and your speaking is seen as a threat, you run the risk of having sex used as a silencer.

Why such a blunt tool to stop a woman from speaking? Jamieson notes that speaking historically was seen as much more dangerous an activity than, say, writing, because it was available to anyone, regardless of her education or status. Anyone can open her mouth and speak. Writing takes access to education, time and space to learn a skill--the "room of one's own" that Virginia Woolf described, or today, a blogging conference. So the powerful tool to take away from women is the most accessible one, their ability to speak, and to speak up for themselves.

Today, this kind of attack is typically more subtle and coded, and even this week, Limbaugh has attacked another woman, but done so by flinging the epithets "single," "authorette" and "over-educated" at her. Coded or open, I believe that the enduring practice of accusing or implying that women speakers are whores helps to explain why women speakers are relatively scarce in our history. Why, in boardrooms around the world today, women are told they are being shrill--shrille is a medieval term--or get talked over, or get their ideas taken and repeated later to great acclaim. Why so many professional conferences take place with no women speakers, or as few as 10 percent, with almost no repercussions of any strength. At some level, women know that when they open their mouths to speak, there's a more than good chance that they will be seen as "too far out there" or unseemly, or attacked and ogled for doing so. They may not be trying to silence you by asking that you bare your breasts these days, but they can undress you with their eyes, demand a sex tape or use the Twitter feed to speculate about raping you.

In our world and heritage, it's assumed that women can be silenced, because that has been more the norm than the exception in our history. Sometimes, I think that even women forget that the women who led the effort to secure votes for women in the United States did so after they were forbidden to speak at an international anti-slavery conference to which they were delegates. To them, it was the right to speak that was worth fighting for; the vote was a way to ensure it. To women around the world in oppressive regimes, the idea of public speaking may not even be a dream, let alone a reality, and yet it's a power any woman has in her own throat.

So know your history, ladies. Do as Sandra Fluke has done and call it what it is: An attempt to silence you.  Know and stop repeating the equally persistent myths that men and women keep spreading about women and public speaking. Every time you hear someone say that women speak more than men do, you are hearing a well-worn echo of the "too much" that led to persecuting women for speaking in days of yore. It's a tamer, toned-down way to shame you into being silent. Remind yourself that you're entitled to speaking your own views, thoughts, opinions and dreams. Keep on speaking, and reinforce other women who speak, or want to do so. Perhaps then the most consistent part of the history of women and public speaking won't be the use of the word "whore."

[This post has been nominated for BlogHer's "Voices of the Year" 2012 competition. Follow this link to vote--and thanks for supporting this post.]

(If you want a great, short rundown of the history of women and public speaking, seek out chapter four in Kathleen Hall Jamieson's book Eloquence in an Electronic Age : The Transformation of Political Speechmaking.)

(Photo from Gage Skidmore's photostream on Flickr.)

In honor of Women's History Month, look for our Famous Speech Friday posts, which will all feature historic speeches this month. Looking for more famous speeches by women? Check out The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Women's Speeches, with a wide variety of women speakers, types of speeches and topics to inspire your next speech. Each one comes with lessons for speakers, plus video or audio and a transcript, where available.