Why we need outspoken women

31 Jul

Last night I was in the audience at a New Statesman event where Mary Beard and Laurie Penny discussed why we are so afraid of outspoken women. Chaired by Helen Lewis, it was great to see a platform filled with articulate women.

Much of the discussion concerned misogyny online – not surprising given that both of these writers have been attacked on social media, and have spoken out about it. It was interesting to hear examples where they had called out abusers and ended up getting them onside.   This seemed to have been done most effectively by reminding abusers of women in their own lives and how they would feel if someone spoke to those women, in the way they had commented online about a public figure.

An interesting theme emerged around women having a sense of belonging in the public sphere. Mary Beard has written and spoken about how the classical world effectively silenced women perceived of as ‘intruding’ into that sphere. The authoritative public voice remains a deep, male one, with women still often portrayed as shrill or whining. Professional women are often advised (a la Margaret Thatcher) to lower their speaking voice and modulate their tone in order to operate effectively. To lose authenticity in this process is the killer: finding your own voice – literally and metaphorically – is what matters. Laurie Penny talked about how women’s appearance is brought into the mix, with women who express opinions often derided as ‘ugly’ and thus not deserving to be heard. On the flipside, if ‘pretty’ there is often the assumption that a woman is not there to be heard, rather just to be looked at – not worth hearing for a different set of reasons. She speculated that there may be ‘one day’ that a woman is heard – when she hits a magic period where not too old, not too young, not too distracting looking, etc.. We should not hold our breath though.

And we certainly should not be silent. We all carry with us images of people in public life which are essentially male: even for this panel of successful women writers, the image of a political commentator or essayist, remains that of a man. This observation struck a chord with the audience and made me think about how I’d recently been in a gallery and asked for more information about an artist whose name I didn’t recognise – I unthinkingly enquired about who ‘he’ was. We all do do it, because that is how things have mostly been. But by taking part in the public conversation women change this.

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