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Lately it seems everyone’s got an opinion about women’s speech. Everybody from Matt Lauer to Howard Stern has been getting his two cents in about vocal fry, up-speak, and women’s allegedly over-liberal use of apologies. The ways women live and move in the world are subject to relentless scrutiny, their modes of speech are assessed against a (usually) masculine standard. This is increasingly true as women have entered previously male-dominated fields like industry and politics.

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In his essay “On Speech and Public Release,” Joshua Gunn highlights the field of public address as an important arena where social roles and norms are contested, reshaped, and upheld. Inspired by the work of his mentor, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell (in particular, her 1998 paper “The Discursive Performance of Femininity: Hating Hillary”), Gunn uses speeches delivered by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in their 2008 contest for the Democratic nomination to illustrate how gendered norms about speech create a double bind for women.

Gunn argues that the field of public address is an important symbolic arena where we harbor an “[ideological] bias against the feminine voice,” a bias, he contends, that is rooted in positive primal associations with masculinity (and the corresponding devaluation of femininity, the voice that constrains and nags—the mother, the droning Charlie Brown schoolteacher, the wife).

Both Gunn and Campbell contend that masculine speech is the cultural standard. It’s what we value and respect. The low pitch and assertive demeanor that characterize the adult male voice signify reason, control, and authority, suitable for the public domain. Women’s voices are higher pitched, like those of immature boys, and their characteristic speech patterns have a distinctive cadence that exhibits a wider range of emotional expression. In Western cultures, contends Gunn, this is bad because it comes across as uncontrolled. We associate uncontrolled speech (what Gunn calls “the cry, the grunt, the scream, and the yawp”) with bodily functions and sexuality—things that happen in the private, domestic spheres (both coded as feminine). Men are expected to repress passionate, emotional speech, Gunn explains, precisely because it threatens norms of masculine control and order.

The notion of control also relates to the cultural ideal of eloquence. Eloquence is not just a Western value but is rewarded in many cultures around the world. In “The Ethnopragmatics of the Akan Palace Language of Ghana,” ethnographer Kofi Agyekum paints a detailed picture of the highly structured “language ideology” that governs daily life among the Akan peoples of southern Ghana, particularly the elites and royalty, who employ a complex system of speaking registers.

A linguistic register, Agyekum explains, is a choice of words, usages, or behaviors that are appropriate to a particular social context. “Individuals become acquainted with registers,” Agyekum writes, “through processes of socialization that continue throughout the life span; hence, members of a language community cannot identify all of their registers with equal ease, let alone use them with equal frequency.” For the Akan, eloquence is evaluated throughout one’s life according to the mastery of numerous speech registers, with increasing use of politeness and honorific terms. According to Agyekum, “One of the skills required of a would-be chief is oratory…parents direct their children or other dependents, especially boys, to master simple rules of formal language, especially greetings and other linguistic routines.”

It’s true that the Akan palace language is a specialized system that embodies the culture and cosmology of the Akan peoples, far from the U.S. political sphere. However, it bears some similarity to the stylized oratory we expect from our presidential candidates in that it constitutes a performance.

Among the Akan, rules about language use, which make up their so-called “language ideology,” are explicit and codified. In the U.S., language ideologies are complex and highly prescriptive, but not formal or explicit. We internalize them by osmosis, from early observations of adult language use, criticism from teachers (i.e., telling little girls not to “be so bossy” and boys to “act like gentlemen”), and sanctions imposed by peers.

These norms become most obvious when they are violated. When men fall off the “control and reason” wagon, they suffer for it. Gunn recalls Howard Dean’s infamous 2004 “I Have a Scream” speech, in which Dean emitted a spontaneous high-pitched screech of joy after he rattled off a list of planned campaign stops. The rest, as they say, is history. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe this small “yawp” could have doomed a presidential campaign, but its effect was immediate. Voters began to question Dean’s ability to handle the emotional rollercoaster of the campaign, and by extension that of the chief executive office.

Gunn and Campbell both say women face a different dilemma—how to please like a woman and impress like a man. In “The Discursive Performance of Femininity: Hating Hillary,” Campbell explains that women in the public sphere have, historically, been expected to “perform” femininity. They usually do this by adopting a personal tone, giving anecdotal evidence, using domestic metaphors, and making emotional appeals to ideals of wifely virtue and motherhood. This, Campbell argues, is what Elizabeth Dole did when she spoke to the Republican National Convention in 1996, on behalf of her husband, Bob Dole. Mrs. Dole, popularly known as Liddy, was widely lauded for this speech, in which she eschewed the podium and walked out among her audience, looking into people’s faces and saying, in her soft voice, “I’m going to be speaking about the man I love.”

Compare this “paradigmatic performance of femininity,” as Campbell calls it, with Hillary Clinton’s address to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago the same year. Dole was soft-spoken and Southern-accented. Clinton was direct and Midwestern-sounding. Both women were composed, articulate, perfectly turned out. But whereas Dole came across as womanly and nurturing, Clinton seemed lawyerly and intellectual. Dole stayed personal, focusing on sharing stories about “the man I love” (her “I” articulated as a gentle “ah”). Clinton, too, played to her crowd, proclaiming to thunderous applause, “Chicago is my kind of town,” but, except for a surprising mention of Chelsea Clinton’s birth, that’s about as personal as it got.

Clinton’s speech focused on children and families in the abstract, with little about her own. And though she wistfully confessed that she wished she and the audience could be sitting around a kitchen table instead of gathering in a convention hall, she appeared quite at home on the podium, high above the audience, speaking with authority. Unlike Liddy Dole, Clinton displayed “few of the discursive markers that signal femininity.” The performance of femininity, Campbell concludes, “means behaving rhetorically like Dole’s wife rather than Clinton’s.”

Campbell asserts that contemporary norms about how women should present themselves in the public sphere echo 19th-century constraints on female activists, the precursors of today’s female politicians. In the 19th century, she says, “women speakers were expected to reaffirm their womanliness discursively at the same time that they demonstrated the ordinary rhetorical competencies—cogent argument, clarity of position offering compelling evidence, and responding to competing views—that were gender-coded as masculine. [These activists] were primarily middle-class women for whom these norms were particularly salient… because gender norms moved them to and prohibited them from public advocacy.”

The ideal of eloquence, it seems, presents a veritable minefield for the female candidate. For Gunn, the epitome of eloquence is President Barack Obama. Gunn compares Obama’s delivery style to the smooth, seductive tones of the late king of rock and roll, Elvis Presley. Eloquence, Gunn says, really boils down to control—control of tone, depth, and evenness of pitch, and the calm, rational presentation of ideas and concepts—all things that characterize Obama’s style.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton seemed a foil to Obama’s noted eloquence. In contrast with Obama’s calm talk of hope and change, she called for solutions and action—“work, not words.” Clinton was unabashedly passionate. Gunn reminds us that commentators at the time (many of them right-wing pundits) persisted in describing her rhetoric as “fierce,” “sharp,” and “angry.”

Gunn also quotes Clinton’s well-known “Shame on You” speech, in which she publicly chided Barack Obama for criticizing her health-care plan, to illustrate their respective demeanors in the campaign. “Meet me in Ohio,” Clinton taunted Obama. “Let’s have a debate about your tactics and your behavior in this campaign!” For Gunn, her stance and tone in this moment evoke Margaret Hamilton’s iconic Wicked Witch of the West—“I’ll get you, my pretty!” Obama responded by playing it cool, his usual MO,   dismissing Clinton’s anger as “tactical,” as one might a child’s temper tantrum.

Ultimately, Gunn arrives at the conclusion that “eloquence” is, essentially, code for values associated with masculinity, saying, “Performances of femininity are principally vocal and related, not to arguments, but to tone; not to appearance, but to speech; not to good reasons, but to sound. This implies that the ideology of sexism is much more insidious, much more deeply ingrained than many might suppose: We don’t simply think in discriminatory ways,” says Gunn, “we hear in sex.” Food for thought.


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