Friday, March 21, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Mary Beard on "The Public Voice of Women"

I'm speaking in London next week about women and public speaking for the Fabian Women's Network at the House of Commons of Parliament. And I have this speech by classics professor Mary Beard ringing in my ears as I prepare for that event. Delivered earlier this month at the British Museum, it starts with a bang: "I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public. I’m thinking of a moment immortalised at the start of the Odyssey."

Beard, who makes an art form of bringing ancient history alive, does so here by connecting the dots between the ancients and the way we silence women in modern boardrooms and the halls of parliaments and congresses even today. She notes, correctly, that public speaking and rhetoric are almost by definition, set to male standards:
What I want to underline here is that this is not the peculiar ideology of some distant culture. Distant in time it may be. But this is the tradition of gendered speaking – and the theorising of gendered speaking – of which we are still, directly or more often indirectly, the heirs....we're not simply the victims or dupes of our classical inheritance, but classical traditions have provided us with a powerful template for thinking about public speech, and for deciding what counts as good oratory or bad, persuasive or not, and whose speech is to be given space to be heard. And gender is obviously an important part of that mix.
Just as I try to do on this blog, Beard points out that many of the most famous women speakers were exceptions in their day, and the most famous of all--such as speeches by Queen Elizabeth I or Sojourner Truth--were not actually their words at all, rewritten by others later on to convey their own messages. And, she wryly points out, even this speech of hers falls into the "acceptable" category of women's public speaking, in which they speak about the lot of women.

She also pushes the listener to think about the authority we give to male speakers, and why we continue to take it away from women who speak, by talking over them, objecting to the sound of women's voices, or cutting them off so they can't continue to speak. Women's voices are described as whining or strident or whingeing. She draws the distinction in terms of speaker credibility and authority:
Do those words matter? Of course they do, because they underpin an idiom that acts to remove the authority, the force, even the humour from what women have to say. It’s an idiom that effectively repositions women back into the domestic sphere (people ‘whinge’ over things like the washing up); it trivialises their words, or it ‘re-privatises’ them. Contrast the ‘deep-voiced’ man with all the connotations of profundity that the simple word ‘deep’ brings. It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they don’t hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it...
This speech got a lot of attention, and continues to do so. What can you learn from it?
  • Don't settle for a simple argument: Whether she's talking about ancient Greeks or Internet trolls, Beard refuses to settle for a "simple" argument of misogyny, accurate though it may be in describing how women are often silenced. Instead, she pushes the audience's thinking, concluding that "we need to go back to some first principles about the nature of spoken authority, about what constitutes it, and how we have learned to hear authority where we do. And rather than push women into voice training classes to get a nice, deep, husky and entirely artificial tone, we should be thinking more about the faultlines and fractures that underlie dominant male discourse. Don't be afraid to tackle similarly complex discussions and avoid the simple answers when you speak.
  • Get right to the point: I love a speaker who avoids what we euphemistically call "throat-clearing" in their speeches, and jump right in, giving clear notice of where we all are headed. Beard's first line does that very well, leaving no doubt where she's headed--yet because few people today are familiar with the mentions of women in history she is describing, there's yet some mystery to draw the listener in. Make your starts just as provocative.
  • Don't feel like you have to be the all-seeing, all-knowing expert: Beard notes that she has no practical solutions for women today--but she does know how to describe what women are looking for: "How do I get my point heard? How do I get it noticed? How do I get to belong in the discussion? I’m sure it’s something some men feel too but if there’s one thing that we know bonds women of all backgrounds, of all political colours, in all kinds of business and profession, it’s the classic experience of the failed intervention; you’re at a meeting, you make a point, then a short silence follows, and after a few awkward seconds some man picks up where he had just left off: ‘What I was saying was …’ You might as well never have opened your mouth, and you end up blaming both yourself and the men whose exclusive club the discussion appears to be." Sometimes, when no solution is in sight, the best thing a speaker can do is delineate the issue in real terms.
The London Review of Books, where Beard is classics editor, kindly published the full text of this speech with a podcast embedded, so you may listen and read along. There's just a snippet of publicly shareable video available, embedded below for you, and there's one more clip on the BBC website. (It was too much to hope, I suppose, that the full video might be shared of a woman speaking about women and speaking.) What do you think of this famous speech?

(University of Cambridge photo)