The Miss Triggs Question: Mary Beard on the Public Voice of Women
February 16, 2014 6:43 AM   Subscribe

"My aim here – and I acknowledge the irony of my being given the space to address the subject – is to take a long view, a very long view, on the culturally awkward relationship between the voice of women and the public sphere of speech-making, debate and comment ... We have to focus on the even more fundamental issues of how we have learned to hear the contributions of women or – going back to the cartoon for a moment – on what I’d like to call the ‘Miss Triggs question’. Not just, how does she get a word in edgeways? But how can we make ourselves more aware about the processes and prejudices that make us not listen to her." Mary Beard, "The Public Voice of Women," from the London Review of Books.

From the Odyssey to online life, the act of women speaking has inspired a strong response:
But the more I have looked at the threats and insults that women have received [online], 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.
Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement Mary Beard speaks out. (For more from Beard, her blog, A Don's Life.)
posted by MonkeyToes (29 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
An excellent, informed read. I am reminded of this recent thread about Emily Graslie of Brain Scoop. I am glad we are finally talking about this - it's important to recontextualize much misogynistic internet assholery as part of a milennia-long campaign against female participation in discourse, and it seems to be making a serious and all-too-familiar problem more visible to the majority.
posted by Miko at 7:59 AM on February 16, 2014 [10 favorites]

I tried to skim, but then the article pulled me in and I ended up reading every word.
posted by Too-Ticky at 8:00 AM on February 16, 2014

Something that goes with and was not addressed in the (excellent) article: the assumption that women are only allowed to speak in certain spheres and mostly on personal matters has a corollary: any speech by a woman is assumed to derive from a limited set of experiences. E.g. (and this is a personal experience of mine) a woman who talks about abortion can't be talking about it as a matter of public policy that she has a theoretical interest in. The discussion must derive from her personal experiences of abortion.

This is not something we assume about men who discuss abortion policy (or any other policy). Men's words are assumed to be unbiased and objective until we're told otherwise.
posted by immlass at 8:15 AM on February 16, 2014 [30 favorites]

Yes, there was that Congressional hearing a couple years ago about religious freedom and the contraceptive mandate of the ACA, and the chair, Darrel Issa, (R-CA) said that since the hearing was really about freedom of conscience and not contraception, it was okay that all of the testimony was from men.
posted by rtha at 8:45 AM on February 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

I went to this lecture, and there was a length question-and-answer section at the end. There were a lot of women asking Beard how to deal with male environments, and how she managed to be so confident... to which she replied that age and experience had given her the confidence to deal with her voice being ignored by men. I'm afraid my note-taking in the questions section was sketchy, so I can't be too precise about what Beard did say.
posted by The River Ivel at 8:58 AM on February 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I went to this lecture

I would love to hear what you observed, and what you thought about it. Lucky you!
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:05 AM on February 16, 2014

when I was about 14, I joined the group that made and distributed our school's 'Schoolkrant' (sort of a periodical magazine for pupils and teachers, mostly written by pupils.) One day, the group was meeting at our house to talk about current events. I was doing my very best to make a good impression, mostly because I was the youngest in the group. At that meeting, I was the only girl.

My mother welcomed them, brought us drinks and then excused herself to her study. The meeting went pretty well.

Afterwards, she asked me how it went and I told her that I thought it went okay. Then she told me that she couldn't hear what was said, but she did hear a 'shrill little radio jamming signal piping up every now and then during the discussion'. She meant me.
So apparently, while she could not hear what I was saying or what the conversation was about, she'd decided that whatever I had to say was noise, not signal, and I should have let the 15-year old boys talk.

My mother considered herself a feminist, and was also convinced I was quite smart. Apparently, these ideas permeate us all.
posted by Too-Ticky at 9:36 AM on February 16, 2014 [7 favorites]

She is right to point out the subtlety of much of this - it's so insidious; the overt misogyny is clearly one thing but also important is what talks about as "how we hear" the voices of women, and that it's not a question of speaking with a deeper voice, but deprogramming whatever in our minds tunes women out or registers their voices as "shrill," "whiney," "strident," etc. I notice this often even on MetaFilter - I often wonder if I'd be derided for "lecturing" and other things I've been critiqued for if I had a male persona here; the male personas I do see here who have a similar interaction style may get called different things when they irritate others, but it's rarely reducible to just an umbrage that they dare to show a command of information.
posted by Miko at 9:42 AM on February 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

We are called shrill, barked/yowled at, called lesbian( regardless of our sexuality) or crazy when the person ( not always male) doesn't like what we are communicating.
posted by brujita at 10:15 AM on February 16, 2014

also important is what talks about as "how we hear" the voices of women, and that it's not a question of speaking with a deeper voice, but deprogramming whatever in our minds tunes women out or registers their voices as "shrill," "whiney," "strident," etc

This has come to mind over a few years of watching The Sing-Off, NBC's a capella singing contest -- the groups are dominated by male-only and mixed (mostly male to half male), with one or maybe two female-only groups per year (generally off the show early), and the commentary is always about low tones and how the women need it, but never about how the men need to be able to sing higher. And of course, though most of the commentary is about singing and performance, the women always get comments about their looks and the men do not.
posted by jeather at 10:23 AM on February 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's interesting to me that "we are called that" not necessarily out of conscious misogyny, but because we are experienced that way - we (even women) have learned/been taught to experience other women that way.
posted by Miko at 10:27 AM on February 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

We are called shrill, barked/yowled at, called lesbian( regardless of our sexuality) or crazy when the person ( not always male) doesn't like what we are communicating
or that we are communicating.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:34 AM on February 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh many I am full of FEELINGS after reading this piece and I have so many thoughts it's hard to turn them into something sensible.

I have told the story before on metafilter and how an angry, screaming, vitriolic gentleman I dubbed the "rage tomato" whose face was so red it looked like he might have a stroke on the spot was described in the news as making a "statement" or at worst a "complaint" or in one case was described as "impassioned" while my (female) response to him screaming at me, which was controlled and calm though my voice was a little tight with emotion and my eyes got red-rimmed and slightly teary, was universally described as "emotional."

As I said, I don't think the media description was a deliberately misogynistic response by anybody or an attempt to silence me specifically; just that overwhelming narrative in our culture is that men who are screaming with rage are "impassioned" while women whose voices wobble are "emotional." Passion is important, passion is being on fire with an important issue, passion is something we should listen to. Emotional is "too upset to think straight" and "irrational."

Also over the past five years my rage level at how when *I* say something I get described as a "fat bitch" while my male compatriot saying the same thing gets described as "a moron" has shot through the roof. When people think men in public life are wrong they're generally dismissed as stupid or morons or idiots -- failures of intellect. When people think women in public life are wrong, they're never dismissed for their failed intellect but almost universally dismissed with a two-part descriptor of [ugly physical trait] + [slur relating to femininity]. So "fat bitch" or "ugly whore" or "cunt with man-hands." Occasionally you get a "stupid bitch" but even if you go with the intellect slur you have got to specify the femininity of the recipient so we're all clear the stupidity is inherent in the gender of the individual.

(Also please note that I was MOST OFTEN described as a "fat bitch" while pregnant. Because humanity is great.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:59 AM on February 16, 2014 [17 favorites]

I've had a few of those moments, too. "Don't get upset!" I'm not "upset," I'm angry.
posted by Miko at 11:17 AM on February 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

As I said, I don't think the media description was a deliberately misogynistic response by anybody or an attempt to silence me specifically; just that overwhelming narrative in our culture is that men who are screaming with rage are "impassioned" while women whose voices wobble are "emotional." Passion is important, passion is being on fire with an important issue, passion is something we should listen to. Emotional is "too upset to think straight" and "irrational."

I think it's been linked here before, but When Men Are Too Emotional To Have A Rational Argument. "Women’s Emotions are 'Emotions,' Men’s Emotions are 'How People Talk'"
posted by jeather at 11:22 AM on February 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, it was the subject of the very thread Eyebrows just linked to.
posted by jeather at 11:23 AM on February 16, 2014

I am an old lady, and I work in technical consulting project management type positions in technical industries for a bunch of different clients. So I have worked in a huge number of different environments, and have become pretty acclimated to being ignored. I can spot the glazed look that a lot of men get when I start telling them something, and at that point, I know that my voice is slowly morphing into the Charlie Brown teacher voice.

It's the main reason that I am a huge proponent of making paper (email) trails of everything. Because something happens to what I tell people sometimes. Weird emotional subtexts and bizarre interpretations that have even made me question myself. Did I actually go on that tangent they're describing? Did that just come out of nowhere? Only after I started keeping thorough, comprehensive records did I realize that no, I was actually being perfectly clear and stayed entirely on topic, and some people really do make up weird little dramatic subtexts pretty much out of whole cloth.

It pisses me off, to be sure. But I try to remind myself that the people who don't listen to what women say aren't just depriving women of their voices, but they're also depriving themselves. Not just from the perspective of understanding women's experiences, although that's pretty bad too. They're also not listening to women who are sharing information on every other topic in the world. Technology, finance, arts, science, and even just directions on how to do their jobs. They're willfully ignorant to about half of the useful information, advice, and perspectives available to them.

Cold comfort, yeah, but hey, I'll take my comfort however I can get it.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:42 AM on February 16, 2014 [13 favorites]

This makes me so, so angry, because I know exactly what the article is talking about and I wish I didn't. I am tired of men telling me to shut up when they discover I know more about a topic than they do. I am tired of being told to pipe down. I am just so tired of being relegated to a position of silence when I could do so much more with my voice if left undeterred. Fuck.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:07 PM on February 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

The thing I struggle with is that, as far as I can tell, I've rarely if ever been dismissed or maltreated by men, in a professional setting. It could be that my own rather high self-regard and confidence vis a vis my skills and intelligence make me oblivious to such things. I know what I can do, because I've already done it countless times, and if I don't know how to do something, I can certainly learn how.

However, I have long since run out of digits to count the number of women who do not react well to me at all, and who rapidly go into attack-and-dismiss mode. Oddly enough, this usually happens after I've chosen to stand my ground on an issue, or stood up for my professional needs. I feel as though I am perceived as a threat, to them.

I don't know, it's extremely weird, but something I just accept as a given anymore.
posted by gsh at 12:58 PM on February 16, 2014

It's illuminating to read the comments on Beard's blog on the entry about this speech, some of which literally restate and prove her entire argument by telling her that if she was nicer about it, or had more of a sense of humour, men would be more inclined to listen ("Surely this lack of humour invites blokish parody and put-down, because unless you Mary, Penelope or whatever you want to call yourself, can speak with an adult voice without being one-sidedly demeaning from the start, absolutely no progress or understanding can be made.").

I remember very clearly in the 1970s, when I was a teenager, that there was a serious insistence on women's voices being too high-pitched to be transmitted properly on radio waves, which was why radio stations were perfectly justified in refusing to hire female announcers. (This was an argument which first surfaced during the 1920s, based on the supposedly scientific analysis of the sonic limitations of speakers and the distortion of higher-pitched sound waves when converted to signals.) One station ran a sarcastic ad saying that because of women complaining about the lack of female voices on the air--there may have been a lawsuit-- they were shifting their hiring requirements to "baritones only". The modern world couldn't support the painful sound of women's voices in the public sphere: even radio frequencies were against them.
posted by jokeefe at 1:00 PM on February 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

One thing that I can't help be struck by is the tremendous fear that apparently lies under this hatred. How afraid must you be of what a woman has to say if you must work so hard to silence her? If women were really trivial, inconsequential beings, you could simply ignore them; you would not need to brutalize them into silence.

It's the same dichotomy you keep running into in discussions about women's capabilities. If women truly wanted/were hard-wired simply to be loved and to serve a man, why would there be any need for laws preventing them from adultery or divorce, or holding higher office, or owning wealth? We are told constantly that we really don't want power, and yet the historical barrage of threats and laws directed at us are like a film-negative picture of our constant attempts to get it. Every law against a woman dressing or acting or speaking how she likes is a response to some woman, somewhere, who did so or tried to.
posted by emjaybee at 1:55 PM on February 16, 2014 [18 favorites]

One thing that I can't help be struck by is the tremendous fear that apparently lies under this hatred.

Yes: see the piece that Mary Beard refers to in this article, It's not misogyny, Professor Beard, it's you, by Spectator columnist Rod Liddle. It's a repulsive piece of clickbait, but with one extraordinarily self-revealing passage, where Liddle declares that Mary Beard should learn to take personal criticism like a man. After all, he says, he is constantly ridiculed by women for his small penis, and he doesn't let it bother him, no sirree, he takes it in his stride. So why should Mary Beard get upset when people call her a cunt?

If Liddle did irony, or critical self-reflection, I might have suspected him of being ironic. But he's built a successful career on not thinking too deeply, and I don't think he even realises what he's saying, or how completely he's given himself away. The mask slips for a moment, to reveal hidden depths of neurotic insecurity.
posted by verstegan at 3:28 PM on February 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

This exact situation of being routinely ignored or ridiculed simply for being a woman was explained to me many years ago by a dear friend.

It was a complete jaw-on-the-floor revelation. As a man, I simply had no idea that this went on. I had never experienced it.

Well, of course I hadn't.

It is one of the main reasons I consider myself a feminist, for whatever that is worth and for whatever that means.

Since blokes don't experience the 'irrelevant voice' thing, it is terribly important to describe it clearly to them. As this essay does.

I strongly encourage you to read it, especially if you are a man.

The cartoon, too, is brilliant.
posted by motty at 4:09 PM on February 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

One time my then-partner and I went for a week away at an oceanside cabin, and he brought his cassette deck with him so he could noodle with some tunes and record if he hit on anything good. I had been out walking on the windswept beach, and came in, with some tales of what I'd seen on the beach.

I started talking, and as per usual, he interrupted me to talk about...I dunno. His music or the painting he was doing or something. It was always the same -- he came home from work and started in on his tales of his days, his computer, something or other, and whatever I had to say got shunted into the background. And I am NOT a fainting flower, not at all. I spent my entire life around mostly guys, and I got very used to participating in conversations and knowing how to do that with men. But no matter how many times I grumbled at him about this, it never really stopped.

A couple months later, he apologized to me, out of the blue. He said, "I accidentally hit record on that tape I wanted to play you, and you started talking about your day and I immediately interrupted you and never let you talk. Every time you start to talk, I interrupt." He played the tape for me. It was like that for AN HOUR. I told him maybe he could learn something from that, and think about that when he was communicating at work, too.

We split up, but stayed friends, and shortly after the breakup he came over and began talking and talking and talking. When he finally finished he asked me why I looked so sad. I said, "My mom has cancer, we just found out." He was like, "Why didn't you say something?" And I asked him when, because he never stopped talking. I reminded him of the cassette incident. He told me I was making it up, that he didn't remember that ever happening. Of course not. That would mean he'd have to have learned something important. I just laughed at him, and told him to go away for a while.
posted by emcat8 at 7:36 PM on February 16, 2014 [15 favorites]

The cartoon, too, is brilliant.

I find it sad, because it is only a fine shade exaggerated from my real experience - that shade being that it's overtly stated instead of just happening, in a weird dance in which reality seems to stretch, shift, morph and render you invisible. I just last week had to have a conversation about being credited for ideas I originated that, after passing through a few male minds, seemed to have lost all reference to their point of origin.
posted by Miko at 8:55 PM on February 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

That cartoon really gets to me. I have just come off of 5 months spent renovating anapartment. I am an architect. I ran the renovation as designer and construction boss. And for five long months, every single order I gave and every single decision I made received the same response: "But what does your HUSBAND think? Shouldn't we wait for his opinion?"
When i reached the point of being so completely overwhelmed by the endless male refusal to hear me that I actually threw the crew out for a fortnight - they refused to leave. They would flat out not agree to NOT come back the following morning until my husband - on a business trip in another country - made an international telephone call to chew them out for not listening to me.
Their response? "Hey Tabubilgirl - your husband decided he wants us to go away for a couple of weeks. Why didn't he just TELL us instead of losing his temper and yelling? This renovation is really getting to him, isn't it? Maybe this is a good idea. He needs to de-stress for a bit. Be nice to him, huh?"
I had sub-contractors who folded their arms and stared at the ceiling and HUMMED when I spoke. And when i went away and found another male to come and talk to them, suddenly came over all voluble about "OMG, I have been TRYING to explain to THIS WOMAN how she just doesn't GET xzywhateveranythingatallthatimighthavewanteddone. She just won't LISTEN."
When we finally hit the commissioning phase of the project, I took my lists and walked my main contractor thru the apartment, and at every SINGLE thing i pointed out, my jolly, cheerful contractor would guffaw and slap his thighs and elbow my husband in the ribs and say "Got to keep the little woman happy, eh? Look at them - always sniffing in corners, looking for problems!"
That's a direct quote.
Damn right he had to keep the little woman happy. She's a professional architect and she's the damn BOSS. Keeping the little woman SANE is the reason her husband had to take a morning off work and spend it following her around the apartment - so that the contractor would actually SEE the paint-splashed walls and missing electrical sockets. Until my husband pointed them out, I was only making so much noise.
I live in Santiago, in Chile. We've got another round of construction work coming next year to finish off the project. I told my husband that HE can take a leave of absence from work and run the renovation himself. I am going home to my family in Australia until it's done. He still thinks I'm joking.
posted by tabubilgirl at 11:23 PM on February 16, 2014 [23 favorites]

tabubilgirl... how did you manage not to lose your shoe up that contractor's ass? I'm in awe.

posted by Too-Ticky at 12:17 AM on February 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Too-Ticky - I thank you for the compliment.
I kept my shoe firmly on my foot because there weren't any other options. What CAN you do when you own a place that's been gutted down to the structural concrete and you need the good will of the people who are going to build it back up?

As things went from bad to bad, I began to hear stories from other women who'd tried to boss a renovation in Chile. Their stories weren't much different. Even the little stories seemed to go all wrong - like the story of the Chilean woman who tried to do something as mundane as replace a wooden floor damaged in the 2010 earthquake - a rather major flooring company tried to pass off a load of substandard flooring on her, and when she sent the company packing, the company went to her husband and explained, very confidentially, about the silly sort of women that doesn't see a good deal when it falls in her lap, but how he, a husband, was certainly smart enough not to miss the boat. The husband, flattered, bought the lot.

After hearing THAT, I settled for coming home at night and howling into pillows (how overemotional of me, eh? Just like a woman!) and then chewing on the pillows, and finally pretending that the pillows were contractors and pitching them out of windows with malice forethought.
And then i wrote really REALLY sarcastic emails to everyone on my mailing list.

But what CAN you do when it's not just a group of contractors, but a whole cultural blind spot?

When i moved us from our old apartment to our new apartment - it was me who spent weeks on the phone and the email sorting out fees and inventories with the moving company.
When a supervisor came to do a walk-thru, it was me who was home to meet him and walk him through the apartment, valued inventories and massing lists in hand.
My husband happened to be home as well that day - he had the flu. He was curled up miserably in a corner of the sofa, and when I'd shown the moving supervisor everything there was to show, he turned and away from me, walked into to the living room, sat down next to my husband and said "So. What are your questions?"
My husband looked at him blankly. He pointed at me and said "Ask HER. She's running this move."
The man looked at him, then looked at me and said "WHO?"
His face was genuinely confused.
While my husband goggled, the man nestled in close on the sofa and said "Right. Now let's look at the lists. Are you happy with the prices? Are you happy with the valuations? What else do you want to know?"
I walked out of the room and left them to it.

Last week i had to go see an insurance agent about a policy on the new place. I caught myself putting on a fresh shirt that exposed just a LEETLE more than usual of my rather meager assets, and brushing on an extra layer of mascara, and practicing a hair flip and a giggle. And i realized that i was doing this because in actual fact, if i act a little helpless and girly, our agent beams paternally and gives me slightly better deals.
I thought about it, and i thought about it, and i shrugged, and put on a second coat of lipstick. If you can't beat 'em, at least get 'em to give you a discount.
posted by tabubilgirl at 1:09 AM on February 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I thought about it, and i thought about it, and i shrugged, and put on a second coat of lipstick. If you can't beat 'em, at least get 'em to give you a discount.

When I was a teenager just learning to drive in Texas, my driving instructor made some sarcastic comment about how the girls in the class were lucky, because we could cry our way out of speeding tickets. I said "Yeah, I'll stop doing that when there's fifty women in the Senate." He scowled, but the other girls high-fived.
posted by KathrynT at 8:44 AM on February 17, 2014 [11 favorites]

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