How to listen to women

Christian fundamentalism, like all fundamentalisms, is a high-control belief system. It smothers believers – especially women – with an oppressive web of rules that dictate every aspect of their lives. It tells them how to dress, how to act in public and private, what they’re allowed to read, who they’re allowed to interact with, what ideas they’re allowed to express – and even how to speak, when they’re permitted to.

Those of us who watched Katie Britt’s response to Joe Biden’s State of the Union heard a demonstration of that. It’s called “fundie baby voice”.

Fundie baby voice (a term coined by ex-evangelical Jess Piper) is the art of speaking in a breathy, high-pitched, intentionally childlike tone. It’s a performance that’s expected of women in fundamentalist sects, as a display of subservience and inferior status.

And it is a performance. The voice that Britt used for her SOTU response isn’t what she really sounds like. To hear the difference between fundie baby voice and Britt’s normal voice, watch this TikTok video from comparing the two. The difference is jarring, and once you know it for what it is, the fundie baby voice is inescapably creepy. It sounds like something out of a horror movie: the whispering of a ghost from beyond the veil.

As patriarchy escapee Tia Levings says:

It’s the denial of our voices, the suppression of our natural sound and range of emotion, and the terms used to train us are reflective of the agenda and abusive system we were in. They want us to sound like sexualized children.

This is a widespread phenomenon in Christian fundamentalism. Michelle Duggar is another high-profile example, as was shown in Amazon’s Shiny Happy People documentary series. Kelly Johnson, wife of Christian nationalist and House Speaker Mike Johnson, does it too.

Women in these cultish patriarchies are expected to be perpetually docile, accommodating and obedient to the men around them. They’re never permitted to be loud, assertive or overly emotional. Speaking in a register that’s typical of children reinforces that mindset.

When they go high, we go low

Fundie baby voice is a dramatic example of how women are expected to contort themselves to fit the demands of a sexist society. It works the other way, too.

You may remember Elizabeth Holmes, the convicted fraudster behind Theranos. Among her other affectations, she spoke in a deep baritone voice in public interviews. That’s not her normal voice, as she finally admitted once the jig was up:

That register is no more — and is now somewhat of a joke for Holmes, who seems to have embraced her natural pitch. She speaks in a “soft, slightly low, but totally unremarkable voice,” according to a recent New York Times profile of the founder, for which writer Amy Chozick spent time observing Holmes and her partner Billy Evans at home.

You can imagine why she did this. Politics, science and other prestigious and powerful fields are still male-dominated, and this creates a feedback loop of unconscious bias.

To people steeped in this legacy of sexism, a deeper – that is, more masculine – voice is unconsciously perceived as a sign of competence and intelligence. Feminine traits, on the other hand, are looked down upon and treated as evidence of ditziness and frivolity.

In an experiment demonstrating this, spoken recordings were shifted to be either higher or lower in pitch, and participants were asked to “vote” for one. People, both male and female, consistently chose the lower voice. Apparently, we have an unconscious bias that people with deeper voices make better leaders.

It’s a widespread assumption – so widespread that most people don’t realize they hold it, much less think to question it – that the more competent a woman is, the more she resembles a man. A con artist like Holmes, skilled at altering her self to match people’s expectations, cynically played along with this belief. She’s not the only one. Margaret Thatcher adopted a deeper voice as she rose in the ranks of British politics.

The fact that women feel pressure to shift their voices, whether higher or lower, to appeal to an audience is clear evidence that sexism isn’t a thing of the past. Some traditionalists, too steeped in their own assumptions to look past them, believe that women (but not men) wearing dresses or using makeup is somehow “natural”.

But there can’t be anything “natural” about women disguising their normal voices to fit what others expect. That’s literally unnatural, in the strictest sense of the word. Whether they’re exaggerating their voices to be higher or lower, either way it highlights the double standard that still reigns: femininity is associated with submission and inferiority, and masculinity with intelligence and dominance.

In an enlightened world, there’d be no reason for anyone to suppose that the pitch of a person’s voice had any correlation with the contents of their brain. Nor would we judge people’s ability by the attractiveness of their face, the shape of their body, the clothes they wear, or their makeup or jewelry or lack thereof. We’d look past all these things as the irrelevancies they are.

We’ve taken some small steps toward this ideal, but not nearly enough or fast enough. Religion, especially fundamentalist religion is one of the biggest forces fighting progress toward equality, spreading toxic stereotypes about gender and trying to keep women subservient. It has to go if the world is ever going to become a better place.


  1. Katydid says

    As a woman in IT since the early 1980s, I’ve dealt with the implicit bias at work all my life. Up through the 1990s, I was expected to wear heels and skirts…even when installing and wiring racks of computer equipment. Must! Look! Attractive!, even if my male coworkers were in dirty, ripped jeans and t-shirts.

    This stuff is absolutely not in the past, either. Even on this very collection of bloggers, there’s a frequent poster who loses his mind if a female poster says something…but says nothing when a man says the same thing. I’ve tested this by having my husband post my words under his male username and…crickets. It’s always hilarious when that happens.

  2. jd142 says

    I would be interested to know if the bias is that we want deeper voices because we think deeper voice = more manly (like how John Inman always lowered Mr. Humphries’ voice when answering the phone in Are You Being Served?) or because we think higher voice = younger or higher voice = feminine. I suspect the answer is yes, all of the above, but have no idea how to tease out that difference.

    I know that when I first heard the phrase “fundie baby voice” I thought of the baby voice women used in the 20s’/30’s. It wasn’t just a high voice, it was also the phrasing that infantalized the woman and made the man both husband and father at once. So pretty easy to see the connection to fundie baby voice. Think Betty Boop, except she rarely resorted to the baby talk; she just had a high squeaky voice.

  3. Lakitha Tolbert says

    ‘To people steeped in this legacy of sexism, a deeper – that is, more masculine – voice is unconsciously perceived as a sign of competence and intelligence.’

    I think however that this is something that is only true for white women perhaps. Black women have naturally deeper voices but get vilified and sometimes deliberately mis-gendered for the thing Holmes did in her interviews.

  4. Katydid says

    In certain circles, the “best” woman was and still is the closest to being a child. Blonde, hairless, with a toddler intellect. The “bombshell” Marilyn Monroe was one example; regular old shopgirl Norma Jean Baker wasn’t stupid, nor was she naturally blonde, but to get men’s interest, she had to conform to the stereotype.

    Likewise, when men want to verbally denigrate a woman, they always put on a very high, squeaky voice and use vapid words.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    In certain circles, the “best” woman was and still is the closest to being a child.

    True – and ironically, the people (not just men) who hold such opinions tend (in my experience) to be the most immature, emotionally-stunted ones.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    It ain’t just women (though it’s clearly more of a burden for them). As a natural baritone, I still lower my pitch a little when doing public speaking or pushing a point of view in a group – apparently it makes me seem a little bigger or otherwise stronger.

  7. sonofrojblake says


    when men want to verbally denigrate a woman, they always put on a very high, squeaky voice and use vapid words

    Or, put another way… “speaking in a breathy, high-pitched, intentionally childlike tone” – y’know, like the woman/women being denigrated here for doing exactly that, even as the post tries to have its cake and eat it by painting these people as oppressed victims, rather than enthusiastic oppressors themselves.

  8. Katydid says

    What a fantastic example of how the patriarchy works, enforcing: “Women MUST be and do THIS!” followed immediately by, “Ha-ha, women do THIS! How stupid!”

  9. Jazzlet says

    Back when I was a student before I was unborn, I was sitting in someones kitchen with a group of other evangelical women having a serious conversation when a man walked in. As one the rest of the women dropped the serious topic and raised the tone of their voices – seriously creepy, so creepy I was completely silenced. All of the other women had grown up evangelicals, whereas I’d grown up in a not very religious Methodist household with a family that valued the intellect above all else, so I hadn’t received the “correct” training, and this was the first time I’d seen it so starkly. It took me a while longer to completely detach, but that event was one of the triggers.

  10. Katydid says

    @ Jazzlet: I bet that was disorienting. Fundagelicals are really into hierarchy (pastor, then husband, then a very distant last, wife). They work very, very hard to enforce the submission and helpless baby-ism on women to keep them in their place. If they have no skills outside the home, then they have no chance of leaving it because there’s no way they can support themselves. And the women learn to be accepted in that community, they have to conform and at least pretend very hard to be helpless. Some pretend so hard they actually are helpless.

    You can see it in popular media from the 1950s – 1970s, as well: books and movies about women who are suddenly widowed, with no skills they can use to support themselves, who have to find ways to support themselves and their children. Into the 1970s and afterwards the tone mostly shifted to women who were educated and worked hard, yet (as the saying goes) had to work three times as hard as men for half the credit. And the conservatives and regressives have been trying to go back to those days when women were dependent on men for their very survival–as shown in the fundie baby voice and submissive act Britt put on, to appeal to the weak men who need even weaker women to feel good about themselves.

  11. Katydid says

    Speaking of (not) listening to women: Lawmaker Asks Delta Pilot About Being A ‘Stewardess’ Immediately After Being Told She’s A Pilot

    “My name is Laura Haynor, and I’m a Minnesota resident and a Minneapolis-based pilot for Delta Airlines,” Haynor said in her introduction.

    Almost immediately afterward, Senator Dornink asks, “Can you tell me what a typical work week looks like for you as a stewardess?”

  12. DanDare says

    I have been a role playing game master since 1974. I have lots of women as leaders in my scenarios. I put on character voice for my NPCs with a wide range of accents and pitches to choose from.
    I never noticed, until reading this, that my female leads all have baritone to bass voices!
    Adjustments will be forth comming in my selection of pitch.

  13. Katydid says

    More on Fundie Baby Voice, from a woman who grew up around it. Eye-opening truths about it:

    …many women trained to speak in this way have behaviors that coincide with their sweet-as-honey voice that not only reveals the horrific mind fuck behind what causes FBV, it underscores the psychological abuse heaped upon these ladies, a type of emotional browbeating that can exist even outside of the Christain Conservative bubble.

    And, as demonstrated in this very post by a commenter:

    As Jess Piper aptly discussed in her brilliant Substack article, Fundie Babie Voice is one of the few tools women in strict Christian Societies are given to be able to ask for a receive what they need without seeming “aggressive.” Conversely, they were demeaned and browbeaten as manipulative for using the very device they were trained to use.

    The first comment (and many of the following comments) continue on the theme:

    My first take, after increasing my determination to avoid fundies, is that almost all women of a certain age (boomers, older gen x mostly) have lived in a society that required women to use certain vocal traits and phrasings to downplay their intelligence and authority/dominance, even in situations where our dominance was acknowledged, e.g., college professors to students. I STILL see this happening to women, often by their peers or slightly older women (e.g., Gen Y to Gen Z).

  14. says

    My local train network uses two pre-recorded voices for its broadcast messages: the male voice is a deep, radio announcer style voice using slow, admonishing tones telling you things you absolutely must do or must not do. The female voice is a lighter voice advising you only on things you should do. Once I noticed this disparity, I began finding all sorts of other similar cases where only men’s deep manly tones are allowed and empowered to use the authority of command; and womanly voices are not allowed to order you about. To do anything. The ‘baby voice’ is an obvious tool of disempowerment (and to make the speaker less threatening).
    That patriarchal dominance thing gets everywhere; even public address systems.

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