Mary Beard on the Literary and Philosophical History of Women Being Told to Shut Up

February 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Mary Beard opens her recent London Review of Books essay on the public voice of women –or lack thereof– by beginning at the beginning, or very close to the beginning, specifically the Odyssey. She describes an incident in which Telemachus, Odysseus and Penelope’s son, tells his mother to shut up and go upstairs to make crafts or sing or something because “speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.” As Beard explains:

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. The actual words Telemachus uses are significant too. When he says ‘speech’ is ‘men’s business’, the word is muthos – not in the sense that it has come down to us of ‘myth’. In Homeric Greek it signals authoritative public speech (not the kind of chatting, prattling or gossip that anyone – women included, or especially women – could do).

Beard then considers our present pop cultural moment, in which women’s voices online are silenced just as frequently, and for the same implicit reasons, cited by Telemachus. If we want to understand why women are subjected to disproportionate abuse and derision online, Beard argues, we need to take the long view, one that sidesteps the overly simplistic assertion of sexism. Aggressive speech directed at women is sexist, but it’s symptomatic of something much deeper and much older than the contemporary attitudes of contemporary men towards contemporary women. These attitudes, summarized by the imperative that “a woman should as modestly guard against exposing her voice to outsiders as she would guard against stripping off her clothes,” are as old as the Western tradition itself, and in classical times were upheld through various legal restrictions on a woman’s right to speak, vote, or own property.

But we’re dealing with a much more active and loaded exclusion of women from public speech than that – and, importantly, it’s one with a much greater impact than we usually acknowledge on our own traditions, conventions and assumptions about the voice of women. What I mean is that public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender. As we saw with Telemachus, to become a man – and we’re talking elite man – was to claim the right to speak. Public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of male-ness. A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition not a woman. We find repeated stress throughout ancient literature on the authority of the deep male voice. As one ancient scientific treatise explicitly put it, a low-pitched voice indicated manly courage, a high-pitched voice female cowardice. Or as other classical writers insisted, the tone and timbre of women’s speech always threatened to subvert not just the voice of the male orator, but also the social and political stability, the health, of the whole state.

The underlying issue, in other words, is gendered speaking; the idea that speech, “serious” speech anyway, is something only men can do — a short hop from saying that speech is something only men should do.

While Beard readily acknowledges that the Western tradition has been influenced and shaped by myriad cultural forces over the centuries, she stresses the enduring significance of the classical era, in the process contextualizing how conversations about classical tropes are immediately relevant to conversations about the contemporary digital media landscape:

Again, 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.

In short, the venerated cornerstones of Western Civilization (and the philosophical, political, and ethical questions they generate) are, regardless of their seeming unassailablity, erudite legitimacy, and general could-not-be-otherwiseness, driving forces behind many of our seemingly contemporary problems (more on those problems here). What to do about online aggression, for example, about which Beard says the following:

But the more I have looked at the threats and insults that women have received, the more I have found that they fit into the old patterns I’ve been talking about. For a start it doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s the fact you’re saying it. And that matches the detail of the threats themselves. They include a fairly predictable menu of rape, bombing, murder and so forth (I may sound very relaxed about it now; that doesn’t mean it’s not scary when it comes late at night). But a significant subsection is directed at silencing the woman – ‘Shut up you bitch’ is a fairly common refrain. Or it promises to remove the capacity of the woman to speak. ‘I’m going to cut off your head and rape it’ was one tweet I got. ‘Headlessfemalepig’ was the Twitter name chosen by someone threatening an American journalist. ‘You should have your tongue ripped out’ was tweeted to another journalist. In its crude, aggressive way, this is about keeping, or getting, women out of man’s talk. It’s hard not to see some faint connection between these mad Twitter outbursts – most of them are just that – and the men in the House of Commons heckling women MPs so loudly that you simply can’t hear what they’re saying (in the Afghan parliament, apparently, they disconnect the mics when they don’t want to hear the women speak). Ironically the well-meaning solution often recommended when women are on the receiving end of this stuff turns out to bring about the very result the abusers want: namely, their silence. ‘Don’t call the abusers out. Don’t give them any attention; that’s what they want. Just keep mum,’ you’re told, which amounts to leaving the bullies in unchallenged occupation of the playground.

Don’t feed the trolls, in other words (my essay on that highly annoying phrase here) — yet another way in which women (or those placed in a subservient, female-gendered position in relation to the dominant male-gendered internet asshole whose right to silence others is apparently more important than their targets’ right not to have to listen to their bullshit) are told to shut up, go upstairs and make crafts or sing or something.

The question is, what should be done, what can be done, about the (ancient) problem of gendered speech? Beard does not pretend to have any easy answers, though she does suggest that perhaps we should take a cue from those in the classical era who actively embraced critical self-awareness. We would be well-served, she concludes, by

try[ing] 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.

Specifically, she says, we need to figure out how Penelope might answer back to our contemporary Telemachus — a question I am currently pondering in the last chapter of my book, and which is applicable to far more than just trolls. It is, instead, a question about the Western tradition more broadly understood, and what it means to be heir to a toxic cultural legacy.

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