Politics has traditionally been men’s business. Gradually women have come to be given more space in this sphere of public activity. However, there are still strains of traditional masculine values evident in political activity, organisation and debate.
There are good and bad consequences of this. The worst is the way debate in the House is treated as a competitive game. Too often performances are seen in terms of how much kudos they give the performer, rather than in terms of how much they contribute to the greater good of all of society.
This is a long but worthwhile read – Mary Beard’s London Review of Books’ Winter Lecture 2014, on “The Public Voice of Women”.
She charts the western history of women’s exclusion and/or marginalisation from public speaking, including politics. She includes saying that, these days, women’s access to public speaking is far better, with the longer masculine tradition being only one of many contemporary influences.
The lecture begins,
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.
This is how Beard tells it:
The process starts in the first book with Penelope coming down from her private quarters into the great hall, to find a bard performing to throngs of her suitors; he’s singing about the difficulties the Greek heroes are having in reaching home. She isn’t amused, and in front of everyone she asks him to choose another, happier number. At which point young Telemachus intervenes: ‘Mother,’ he says, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.’ And off she goes, back upstairs.
There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope. But it’s a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere; more than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.
This is the origins of the Western legacy at its most direct and raw. Beard goes on to argue that, while it’s legacy is still present in the 21st century, it has been somewhat weakened.
Beard argues there are still some of the underlying assumptions, concepts and values that contribute to the gendering of public speech: e.g. references to people’s public speaking as “whining”, has a “feminine” origin. This has a historical origin, whereby women’s voices were dismissed as a “whine” unsuited to public speaking. Masculine deep voices are seen as more politically authoritative.
Several women politicians have opted to try to lower their speaking voice – Margaret Thatcher the most noted.
While for many, Helen Clark was a great Prime Minister, some opponents viciously questioned her femininity and (hetero)sexuality, were questioned and used that as a way to undermine her. Such underhand methods have a pretty long historical legacy.
Beard concludes with a particularly gruesome and brutal act committed by the Roman woman Fulvia: a brutal act that is a kind of feminine reversal of masculine brutality, turned against a powerful male as revenge – stabbing a hairpin into the tongue of the decapitated head of the dead Marcus Tullis Cicero (who had been a powerful public speaker.
Beard ends with this suggestion that we spend some time contemplating the legacy of assumptions about public (and political) speaking:
We should perhaps take our cue from this, and try to bring to the surface the kinds of question we tend to shelve about how we speak in public, why and whose voice fits. What we need is some old fashioned consciousness-raising about what we mean by the voice of authority and how we’ve come to construct it.
For instance, why does John Key get treated (at least as seen in the media) as “an ordinary Kiwi”, when a lot of his behaviour is that attributed to an “ordinary Kiwi male”?