Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Book journal: Misogyny as a global barrier to women's public speaking

We in the U.S. sometimes think we've ducked the misogyny bullet, but I see it as a major factor in holding women back from public speaking roles all around the world, including my home country. Not long ago at a conference, I was talking about this phenomenon with another woman. "Even today," I said, "prominent women who are known for an active speaking role in public can be shot in the head in an effort to silence them." My dinner companion, an American woman, said, "But that was in Pakistan!" She thought I was referring to Malala Yousafzai, and I might have been. But in fact, I was speaking of former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

Let me share with you some of the books, films and articles that are shaping my thinking right now as I research the book--much as I did in my post Seen or silenced? More on women speakers and their wardrobes. They're windows on how misogyny contributes to silencing women around the world:
  • Discomfort with women in power is expressed in many ways, but in Australia, it's especially overt. In The Misogyny Factor, Dr. Anne Summers writes about this in relation to former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who was the subject of virulent misogynistic attacks in her role as that country's first female leader. I'm very much looking forward to digging into this book and learning its prescriptions for gender equality. A Summers lecture based on the book will be the focus of an upcoming Famous Speech Friday post on this blog, suggested by reader Cate Huston. It's telling that Summers has issued an "R-rated" and "vanilla" version of that speech. Our FSF series includes Gillard's viral misogyny speech on the floor of the Australian Parliament.
  • Call me mister? One way to negate a woman's voice is to take away her gender. In China, women opinion leaders are being referred to as "Mister" on Weibo, that country's version of Twitter. In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye--the nation's first female leader--is referred to as "the neuter president."  But that's not a new phenomenon, by any means...
  • When in Rome, part I: The tactic of neutralizing a woman's sexuality in order to keep her silent is a persistent trend that goes all the way back to the first century in Rome. Kathleen Hall Jamieson noted in her wonderful book Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking that "Effective female speakers, such as Maesia Sentia, a first-century Roman, were labelled androgynes by their admirers, in this case by Valerius Maximus." The idea? You can't have a fertile womb and a full brain, so these thinking, speaking women must not really be women. The concept was used in reverse to forbid women to speak in public, lest they lose their ability to bear children. Just imagine if public speaking actually worked as birth control...
  • When in Rome, part II: Misogyny wasn't limited to ancient Rome, nor was the tactic of threatening women with losing their children. Modern Italy has its own ways of neutralizing women and their ability to hold power. I had the chance to see a screening of the documentary Girlfriend in a Coma. in New York last year, and was especially struck by the section that focuses on how poorly women are treated in Italy. The film, by former Economist editor Bill Emmott and filmmaker Annalisa Piras, is based on Emmott's book, Good Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer Its Demons to Face the Future. He calls Italy "the worst place in Europe to be a woman," and the film brings women's issues into sharp focus. As just one example, the book notes that the few Italian women who do work are "on short-term, precarious contracts...that deprive them of maternity rights, which gives Italian women a starker choice between work and family than exists in other western European countries." That's one way to keep women out of power and silent, bearing in mind that most of us do our "public speaking" on workplace conference calls and in meetings. I'm happy to say the documentary is now available in the U.S. and elsewhere on Amazon. Watch and learn, and look forward to the team's next project, a documentary about Europe.
I welcome your pointers to other sources on this topic as I keep working on the book--and I'll be sharing them right back here on the blog, both to keep me on track with the writing, and to spread the knowledge around. Please do contribute to my thinking as these sources have done! I'm delighted to have you as part of the book's research process.

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