Performing Femininity

From scolds to “talking underwater”: Policing women’s voices

A New England woman wearing a scold’s bridle (1885). Wikipedia

Why is it that when a woman talks, she is more likely to be understood as excessively vocal, irritating, or a nag as compared with when a man speaks?

Eddie McGuire recently joked about drowning journalist and football commentator Caroline Wilson. Sam Newman’s contribution to the resulting debate was to suggest that even if Wilson was submerged underwater that she’d “still be talking”.

Though high-profile male television and radio personalities like McGuire and Newman have regular platforms that exist for them to largely talk to a national audience, it is women who are usually accused of speaking too much.

This perception holds even when women have spoken measurably less than the men around them. For instance, when Catherine Deveny appeared on ABC’S Q & A in 2014, she was criticised for rudely dominating the conversation. An analysis of the episode on which she appeared showed that she only spoke half as much as one of the male guests, was invited by the host to speak fewer times, and interrupted other speakers no more than another male panellist (and the host less).

Various media reports about gender-based differences in the amount of words spoken have delighted in suggesting that women speak up to 20,000 words per day, three times more than the average man. More reputable studies suggest that the difference between sexes is negligible, with 16,215 words measured for women in one day and men at 15,669.

These examples suggest that many people believe women speak more than they actually do.

There is also a cultural tendency to dismiss women’s voices as “annoying”, especially in influential contexts such as politics or the media. Qualities typical of female voices, such as a higher register, are seen as less authoritative. While, more recently, affectations like vocal fry and “uptalk” have been discussed as irritatingly common features of the speech of young women.

Male discomfort about women speaking is recorded throughout history and literature.

In a lecture entitled Oh Do Shut Up Dear!, classicist Mary Beard traces how women’s voices have been silenced in public, in particular. Beard begins with the example of Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey being told that “speech will be the business of men” and bundled off to continue with her weaving. She concludes with the contemporary mocking of women sports commentators and vitriolic attacks on women on Twitter.

From the seventeenth century, women with “unruly tongues” could be legally punished as a “scold”, although usually some degree of verbal or physical harassment was involved. Lynda E. Boose suggests that as it was primarily women who were charged for “verbal disruption”, it is likely that “a ‘scold’ was, in essence, any woman who verbally resisted or flouted authority publicly and stubbornly enough to challenge the underlying dictum of male rule”.

Scolds could be publicly humiliated on a cucking stool or with a scold’s bridle. This device was effectively a muzzle that encircled the head, which included a bit (sometimes studded with spikes) that pressed down on the tongue, making it painful and impossible to speak.

The rarity of the male scold is indicative of the way that a woman’s capacity to speak is perceived as more threatening or burdensome to her audience.

Similarly, vocal and powerful men in the media and politics are rarely criticised for talking too much. In contrast, the smaller number of women who are vocal in the public sphere are often described as too talkative and incite hatred. This is particularly evident in the amount of social media abuse directed at female journalists.

We wouldn’t expect to look to Sam Newman and The Footy Show for progressive attitudes towards women. Nevertheless, Newman’s comments are merely the more unpalatable and visible end of well-ingrained cultural ideas about how much and how loudly women can use their voices without needing to be punished.