Thursday, March 16, 2017

Silencers: In appearance v. content for women speakers, guess which wins?

There are all sorts of things that can silence a woman speaker, from audience or online trolls and hecklers to the conference organizers who keep her off the program. But for truly deafening silence around a woman's speech, there's nothing like her outfit or her hairstyle to do the trick.

That's what it felt like as recently as last week, when I posted this mini-rant on The Eloquent Woman page on Facebook, one that thousands saw and interacted with:

Clinton spoke at the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards on International Women's Day, wearing red as did many women in support of A Day Without a Woman, on the same day. But you could read more about her wispy bangs than about the content of her speech in much of the coverage.

And attorney Amal Clooney, speaking at the United Nations on the very next day, on the serious topic of launching a formal investigation of human rights crimes committed by ISIS, was primarily covered not for her topic of substance, but for wearing yellow and for showing her "baby bump." Clooney, who is pregnant, was thus reduced to being the baby-carrying wife of actor George Clooney, despite her strong speech.

Then we learned that actor Angelina Jolie "looked chic" as she spoke at the London School of Economics Centre for Women, Peace and Security, on her work at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
I've noted before how Dee Dee Myers, former press secretary to President Bill Clinton, has said that a bad hair day can be a "virtual mute button" for a woman speaker. But it appears, really, that all it takes to silence the woman speaker is to focus on her hair. Or her outfit.

This is another persistent and durable silencer that women have been facing for centuries. Consider this take from an exhibit on in Paris just now, about fashion for women during World War I, nearly a century ago: "if the war accelerated modernization already underway, fashion also reflected profound anxiety about women’s liberation." We're seeing that anxiety about three powerful women today, and it gets in the way of a further power they are wielding, public speaking.

In coming weeks, we'll have a substantive speech of Clooney's featured in our Famous Speech Friday series, and of course, Clinton and Jolie are already have speeches featured here. I wish more media outlets would focus on their content instead of their appearance, but we'll continue to make content the focus for women speakers featured here on The Eloquent Woman.

(UN Photo of Clooney by Rick Bajornas)

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