SOMETIMES it seems like for every stride forward in the quest for gender equality, there’s a shuffle back; a murmured “oh sorry, after you” when what’s needed is a bold, unapologetic “clear a path – I’m coming through”.
It’s hard to imagine that sort of meek deference from a woman like Mary Barbour, the game-changing activist from Govan who led the rent strikes of 1915. Her legacy had been somewhat neglected until a few years ago, when the Remember Mary Barbour committee came together. But it’s a sign of how far our society still has to go that even attempts to celebrate women can end up insulting them.
The committee’s central goal is to create a lasting memorial to Barbour, and the first phase of this project saw five sculptors commissioned to produce scale models, or maquettes, of their proposed designs. Some featured Barbour alone, others had her fronting a crowd. One of the artists wrote that their work aimed to depict Barbour as “the strident campaigner she was”.
I don’t believe for a moment that a slur was intended. I don’t think this sculptor sought to convey a sense that yes, Barbour may have led successful rent strikes, co-founded the Women’s Peace Crusade and helped established her city’s first family planning centre, but my goodness, she had a voice like nails down a blackboard. Strident is an adjective that pops up regularly in print and discussion, often paired with the word “feminist”, so it’s perhaps little wonder many people assume it conveys something positive, like “kick-ass” or “patriarchy-busting” or “striding towards a better future for all”.
I thought of Mary this week while listening to American feminist writer and performer Lindy West discussing her memoir, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, at Glasgow Women’s Library. West is all of those things strident doesn’t mean, and more. Her book’s title is her sly way of reclaiming another word that’s often used to shush and dismiss a woman expressing a view.
Could it be that women are cringing with recognition when a high-voiced woman speaks up on Question Time, or in parliament, or in any public forum where men dominate?
Now, some may say there’s nothing sexist at all about these words, which are merely descriptive. Women do, on the whole, have higher-pitched voices than men, and it’s not just men who describe them as shrill, screechy and ear-piercing – plenty of women do it too. But why is it that we’re so quick to tune out when a woman is speaking? Is it simply because we’re conditioned to respect the authority of those who communicate in booming, bass tones? Or could it be that women are cringing with recognition when a high-voiced woman speaks up on Question Time, or in parliament, or in any public forum where men dominate? If so, then the real problem isn’t the pitch of the delivery, but the fact that many of those listening lack faith in the importance and validity of their own questions, arguments and opinions.
West – whose voice, I can confirm, is warm and melodic – made her name as a writer with an ultra-caustic savaging of the film Sex & The City 2, a creative product I don’t seek to defend other than by noting that I chuckled at “Lawrence of my labia”. It’s worth pointing out that in her review West made reference to the “screeching” of central character Carrie Bradshaw – not to suggest this undermines her feminist credentials, but to demonstrate the pervasiveness of such gendered language.
Countless scientific studies have shown a low pitch is an asset for anyone seeking a position of power. Margaret Thatcher understood this, and famously undertook voice coaching both to lower the tone of her voice and to make it sound less like that of a grocer’s daughter. More than three decades later there’s no suggestion preferences have changed.
Perhaps it’s because Kezia Dugdale is almost exactly my age that I bristle any time she’s described as too young, too inexperienced, too lightweight to lead Scottish Labour. But this cannot be a simple case of age discrimination, as Ruth Davidson is only three years older and has been leading the Scottish Tories for five. So does it have to do with how they sound? Dugdale certainly had a few stumbles in the TV debates that preceded May’s vote, but her lower-pitched female rivals had their moments too, from Nicola Sturgeon’s rattled retorts on tax to Davidson being caught off-guard on prescription charges. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that certain types of speakers will always come off better, regardless of their skill at answering the questions.
It’s a fact of biology that younger women have higher voices, so those starting out in politics face a double disadvantage compared to men of any age
The main reason this matters is that women pay attention to the criticism other women receive, and this can’t help but affect their own willingness to stand up and speak. It’s a fact of biology that younger women have higher voices, so those starting out in politics face a double disadvantage compared to men of any age. How can we hope to have a 50:50 gender split in our parliaments when women face being dismissed as too hard on the ears before they’ve even had time to make a point?
Overcoming centuries of social conditioning is not an easy task (if you think you’re enlightened enough to have done so, look up Sarah Palin’s San Diego tribute to Donald Trump and tell me it’s just the content that puts you off, not the sound she makes). But we have to start somewhere, so let’s start with minding our language when it comes to women talking, campaigning and striding onwards to challenge the status quo.
A version of this article first appeared in The National.