Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Do all your references to women in speeches cast us as "mothers, wives and daughters?"

Perhaps little noted nor long remembered by some who watched President Obama's State of the Union address this year were three little words that have stirred up a rhetorical storm: Mothers, wives and daughters. In Stop Calling Us Wives and Moms, Salon writer Tracy Clark-Flory shares word of a petition calling on President Obama to "stop using the rhetorical frame that defines women by their relationships to other people."

I'll bet this protest comes as a surprise to politicians and their speechwriters, who commonly load up speeches with references to moms, wives, and daughters when women's issues are on the table. It's a popular device. Trouble is, they're leaving out all sorts of women and the wide variety of roles they play other than familial roles. Is my vote less useful to you because I'm single? What about my earning power, my vote, my productivity and the taxes I pay? Do we only value women for their family status? Are married women or women with children more valued than other women? Speeches seem to be saying so, and the women hearing those speeches are not impressed.

Let's just look at the women in The Eloquent Woman Index. Most of the women speakers in the index are not speaking about motherhood, sisterhood or wifely duties in their famous speeches. That's because the majority of women play many more roles than those we were born or married into. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned women 450 times in speeches in her first 20 weeks in office, and has said, "I have been working hard to integrate women’s rights as a cornerstone of our foreign policy. Women are key to the success of the Obama administration’s major development and economic-growth initiatives.” No mention of family relationships needed to capture our collective role as a powerful economic engine.

If, however, you are relegating us to "mothers, wives and daughters" in your only references to women in your speeches, you're helping to ensure that our legacy has only to do with whether we gave birth to you, married you, or are your offspring. And somehow, that seems a lot less about us, and a lot more about you. In a week marking the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, it appears that women have advanced in many ways in our societies. It's the speeches that seem to lag behind or put us back in that familiar place.

For me, at least, this isn't about negating the roles of mothers, wives and daughters at all, but about making sure women are seen in a less lopsided way. The Salon article quotes a man who notes a parallel to gay rights rhetoric: "The reason to fight homophobia isn’t because ‘you’ve got a gay friend,’ it’s because it’s simply the right thing to do. The reason why a woman is valuable isn’t because she’s someone’s sister, or daughter, or wife, it’s because of the person she is unto herself.” Borrow a tactic from one of the speakers in The Eloquent Woman Index, suffragette Nellie McClung, and turn the verbal tables here: Go through a speech referring to mothers, daughters and wives, and replace the phrase with fathers, sons and husbands. If it sounds ridiculous for them, why do that to the women?

The petition blames the president for the word choices. But in reality, speechwriters--a male-dominated profession--are likely more responsible for turning again and again to these words when they want to sum up women and attempt to connect with that audience. So whether you're the speechwriter, the speechwriter's editor, or the speaker who hires and uses the speechwriter, let me urge you to make a more concerted effort to:
  • refer to women in your speeches with adjectives and roles that reflect the wide variety of contributions they make to our society;
  • include mentions in your speeches of "women and men, boys and girls" when you are referring to groups of people;
  • use "she" as well as "he" as a generic pronoun; 
  • quote women and use women as examples of more than family roles; and
  • think twice before you bring out those "mothers, wives and daughters" in a speech, unless (and even if) your remarks focus on family relationships.
Women do much more than speechwriters let their words admit. Don't write our infinite variety out of the speech, even inadvertently. The speech will be the better for it.

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1 comment:

Nicole D'Amico said...

This is a wonderful article; as a woman never having married or borne children, I often wonder about our perception of woman's worth in American society. "Mothers wives and daughters" exactly sums up my experience--am I not first an intelligent mind capable of expanding the world? Is my liberty limited to the relation of my woman's body to other bodies? Reducing women to roles is manipulative even when it is well intentioned.