Telling a woman to shut up

Mary Beard has a long piece in the LRB about public speaking as definitional of manhood, and women’s exclusion from it as a result.

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 theOdyssey…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​2.

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.

Another thing that’s interesting about it is that it had to be said. It’s interesting that Penelope wasn’t already confined to her quarters; that she dared to go downstairs in her own house, and wander into the great hall which was full of men. But perhaps it’s not interesting after all, if it’s there only to give Telemakhos the opportunity to boss her around.

What interests me is the relationship between that classic Homeric moment of silencing a woman and some of the ways women’s voices are not publicly heard in our own contemporary culture, and in our own politics from the front bench to the shop floor. It’s a well-known deafness that’s nicely parodied in the old Punch cartoon: ‘That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.’​3 I want to look too at how it might relate to the abuse that many women who do speak out are subjected to even now, and one of the questions at the back of my mind is the connection between publicly speaking out in support of a female logo on a banknote, Twitter threats of rape and decapitation, and Telemachus’ put-down of Penelope.

I think about that kind of thing all the time. I always have.

Telemachus’ outburst was just the first example in a long line of largely successful attempts stretching throughout Greek and Roman antiquity, not only to exclude women from public speech but also to parade that exclusion.

Just what I was thinking: Penelope was allowed to leave her quarters just so that Young Lochinvar could order her back into them. It was a chance to parade the exclusion.

Henry James was a great hater of women’s public voices.

Under American women’s influence, he insisted, language risks becoming a ‘generalised mumble or jumble, a tongueless slobber or snarl or whine’; it will sound like ‘the moo of the cow, the bray of the ass, and the bark of the dog’…‘In the names of our homes, our children, of our future, our national honour,’ James said again, ‘don’t let us have women like that!’

Of course, we don’t talk in those bald terms now. Or not quite? For it seems to me that many aspects of this traditional package of views about the unsuitability of women for public speaking in general – a package going back in its essentials over two millennia – still underlies some of our own assumptions about, and awkwardness with, the female voice in public. Take the language we still use to describe the sound of women’s speech, which isn’t all that far from James or our pontificating Romans. In making a public case, in fighting their corner, in speaking out, what are women said to be? ‘Strident’; they ‘whinge’ and they ‘whine’. When, after one particular vile bout of internet comments on my genitalia, I tweeted (rather pluckily, I thought) that it was all a bit ‘gob-smacking’, this was reported by one commentator in a mainstream British magazine in these terms: ‘The misogyny is truly “gob-smacking”, she whined.’

We do talk in those bald terms now, and balder ones. Much balder, as Beard knows, having been the target of them.

Do those words matter? Of course they do, because they underpin an idiom that acts to remove the authority, the force, even the humour from what women have to say. It’s an idiom that effectively repositions women back into the domestic sphere (people ‘whinge’ over things like the washing up); it trivialises their words, or it ‘re-privatises’ them. Contrast the ‘deep-voiced’ man with all the connotations of profundity that the simple word ‘deep’ brings. It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they don’t hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it; they don’t hear muthos.

It doesn’t help that so many women, especially women in professions that involve the voice, like acting and singing and broadcast journalism, talk in exaggeratedly babyish voices. It’s a fashion, and I wish it would stop being a fashion.

And, across the board, we still see tremendous resistance to female encroachment onto traditional male discursive territory, whether it’s the abuse hurled at Jacqui Oatley for having the nerve to stray from the netball court to become the first woman commentator on Match of the Day, or what can be meted out to women who appear on Question Time, where the range of topics discussed is usually fairly mainstream ‘male political’. It may not be a surprise that the same commentator who accused me of ‘whining’ claims to run a ‘small light-hearted’ competition for the ‘most stupid woman to appear on Question Time’. More interesting is another cultural connection this reveals: that unpopular, controversial or just plain different views when voiced by a woman are taken as indications of her stupidity. It’s not that you disagree, it’s that she’s stupid. ‘Sorry, love, you just don’t understand.’ I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called ‘an ignorant moron’.

These attitudes, assumptions and prejudices are hard-wired into us: not into our brains (there is no neurological reason for us to hear low-pitched voices as more authoritative than high-pitched ones); but into our culture, our language and millennia of our history. And when we are thinking about the under-representation of women in national politics, their relative muteness in the public sphere, we have to think beyond what the prime minister and his chums got up to in the Bullingdon Club, beyond the bad behaviour and blokeish culture of Westminster, beyond even family-friendly hours and childcare provision (important as those are). 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.

Indeed. But that idea is maligned as “radical feminism” – which is accurate in one sense but wildly inaccurate in another, and misleading besides.

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…[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…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.

As I remember saying over and over and over again about a year ago, in response to “advice” to just get off the internet if I don’t like verbal abuse.

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. We need to work that out before we figure out how we modern Penelopes might answer back to our own Telemachuses…

We’re working on it, I think.



  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … there is no neurological reason for us to hear low-pitched voices as more authoritative than high-pitched ones…

    Tests done almost half a century ago showed that, given radio communications with a lot of static, women’s voices are more clearly understood (by both men and women).

  2. Menyambal --- making sambal a food group. says

    Great essay.

    Telemachus was an ass and a suck-up to the suitors.

    Back in the day, men with higher voices could be heard better over the noise of battle, supposedly.

  3. K. says

    There is something very interesting in the Odyssey: it shows a time where although women cannot themselves speak publicly any more, royal power is inherited through them.
    If power were inherited via the male line, either Telemachos or Laertes (Ulysses’ pesant father) would be in power. But Telemachos is not even remotely an heir of royal power, and there is not a word about the suitors taking away anything Telemachos has any claim to. Ulysses’ father on the other hand never has been a king and doesn’t even aspire to set things in the palace straight, which he surely would if he had any connection to royalty. Ulysses himself is king only by being Penelope’s husband, and his successor is not his own legal son Telemachos but the husband of Penelope’s daughter if she had one.

  4. geekgirlsrule says

    Even when they kind of agree with you, they feel the need to talk down to you and try to shut you up. I dared post about the SFWA debacle on my GGR facebook page, and got several dudes “explaining” to me why I shouldn’t say such horrible things (all older white dudes), and if I didn’t like it, I could just not buy the offenders’ books.

    Which considering that the last line of my post about it was, “Well, I guess I won’t be buying any more of your books,” was just fucking stupid. I also got condescended to because I’m female on the internet and don’t look my age, people often assume I’m a good 15 years younger than I am (thank you genetics). Told that men just couldn’t imagine being a woman or POC, but then told how SF is a literature of imagination, and SF is also just crawling with women, but it’s a boys’ club, and I just need to suck it up.

    Sorry about the rant, I’ve spent two days trying to kill these idiots with kindness to derail their “ANGRY FEMINST!” whining. And yes, they are whining.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *