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Seen and Not Heard: The Attack on Female Voices by Claudia Davey

The situation always goes like this. I’m speaking to a man, often one whom I consider to be generally nice and well-mannered. I say something in what I believe to be a normal tone. Suddenly, almost as if they can’t help themselves, they parrot it back to me in their best Valley Girl drawl, or high-pitched and shrill, my original sentence stuffed with oh-my-gods and likes. What? I think, suddenly bewildered and confused.

Is that what I sound like?

Women and girls are no strangers to having their words, and how they are delivered, moderated. I can recall several instances throughout my teenage years of me and my friends being reprimanded by men of all ages, from our peers to our teachers, for being too shrill, too loud. However, these earlier scenarios are different from the ones I find myself facing now. Before, we were often laughing or messing around, usually drunk. While there’s something to be said for the issue of girls being criticised for openly and proudly having fun, the situations I face today are more insidious.

Being at university has served as a magnifying glass for both my immense privilege and the immense burden faced by women

Since going to university I have found my voice being criticised in daily conversation, perfectly sober and mundane. Increasingly, my sentences are cut off halfway through just so my male counterpart can make comment on the way they sound. The topic of conversation makes no difference; it doesn’t matter if we are discussing weekend plans or college gossip or the wider implications of climate change.

My ideas are always lost in the rush to mimic the way the sound.

Any brief search online will produce hundreds of thousands of results on all the things wrong with the voices of women. Affectations such as baby-talk, upspeak and vocal fry are all used as a stick to beat us with. Vocal fry, in which the voice is dropped and a guttural sound is produced, is considered a plague among young women, popularised by celebrities such as the Kardashians and adopted by as many as two-thirds of us. Potentially developed to deflect the ever-applied criticism that women’s voice are too shrill and emotional to be respected, vocal fry seems to have the opposite effect.

A Google search produces thousands of results about how annoying it is, how it makes women sound ‘less competent, less educated and less attractive’. A VICE article describes how an unnamed girlfriend, who is otherwise ‘beautiful and fun to drink with’, is taken to a speech therapist by a boyfriend who can no longer bear to listen to her. ‘Even when the words coming out of her mouth are well-chosen and witty, the way they are delivered can be so grating it’s hard to pay attention’, he writes. He is not alone in this sentiment. In the comments under an Guardian article discussing vocal fry, men describe how the way women speak invokes ‘pure, boiling rage’.

What is the solution? Rather than analysing these vocal modulations and their perception, it is instead suggested that women fall silent. One writer suggests that we should ‘[stop] addressing women and instead take to clicking our fingers and pointing’. The message is clear. Well after men have graduated from the age-old adage, women are still expected to be seen and not heard. For Black women, the problem multiplies under the weight of racial bias. If not openly criticised for sounding too ‘black’ or too ‘ghetto’, dog whistles to such openly racist statements are found in the frequent criticisms of BIPOC for being too loud or too blunt in the way that they speak. These microaggressions, compounded over the years, silence.

“But with male supervisors or male students, I often felt that I was toeing the line of inadequacy.”

These continued criticisms of female voices, long pervasive in boardrooms and parliamentary chambers and everyday life, consistently and effectively undermine female thought and expression. For me, at university, I began to stop myself from saying things in the fear that they would come out wrong. The frustration I felt at being constantly interrupted faded into a vague sense of embarrassment. This insecurity metastasized, spreading from my voice to my words. If my voice was really so vapid and silly, surely my ideas were too. I became unsure of my intellectual capacity, convincing myself that I had nothing beneficial to contribute. As someone raised predominantly in all-female education, in which we were encouraged to speak loudly and proudly, this feeling was both novel and debilitating. In discussions held by female professors, mainly populated by female students, I had no problem sharing my thoughts and ideas with something close to confidence. But with male supervisors or male students, I often felt that I was toeing the line of inadequacy. This feeling didn’t even always stem from the men I was in the room with; often my male supervisors and peers were perfectly encouraging (although I am aware friends of mine have not had the same experience). But those past interruptions had ingrained in me a feeling of incompetency and an automatic deference to male voices. As the boys around me grew bolder in their ideas and their confidence to speak them, I couldn’t help but fall silent, certain that I was the dumbest in the room.

Interestingly, studies suggest that men employ vocal fry more than women. However, the vehement criticism that this particular vocal effect makes women sound unprofessional or shallow is rarely applied to men. Men’s voices are all-purpose. Their ways of speaking and the language they use are rarely boxed into one sphere of life, needing to be carefully transmuted to fit another. Feminist writer Linda McDowell notes that the language of the workplace is often littered with masculine vocabulary (such as that of sports-fields and warfare) that alienates and others women. Male standards determine the norm and it is up to women to comply. Any deviation and female voices become open hunting ground.

Young women develop terminally annoying speech patterns‘, one Guardian reader writes. But to me, this is wrong. Instead, young women develop speech patterns which become terminally annoying. It is not that patterns such as vocal fry are considered intrinsically shallow or grating, it is that society perceives the young women that adopt them as such. Such patterns have been added to the laundry-list of weapons to be used against women, another criteria for us to meet before our words can even be considered. It seems that no matter what we do – whether we keep our voices at their natural, high-toned pitch or try to replicate the lower registers of men – we cannot win. Speak too high and you will be considered shrill and whining. Speak too low and you will sound affected and grating. The voice box of women shrinks between these two ever-encroaching goalposts.

For me, the most empowering thing about university has been being surrounded by other women who encourage and uplift me to share my voice, no matter how it will be received

This constant policing of our voices feeds into the long-standing theme of women and performance. I read these comments by men, complaining about how the young women in their lives speak, and I want to ask if they can even remember what the women were trying to say. Tone-policing invades valid, important conversation, rendering swathes of women silent. When people mock or berate young women for how they talk, they are telling them the way their words are presented and packaged and delivered to the ears is more important than their content. Again and again, appearance trumps all. The list of attributes that a woman must possess to be even briefly respected is an ever-growing litany that often impinges on both our time and pay-cheques. Now we must not only look the part – preferably white, thin and well-groomed – we must also sound it. The condemnation of the vocal fry and other vocal patterns – including those that supposedly signify class and race, such as accents and use of cultural vernaculars – creates yet another hoop for women to jump through just to be listened to, to be taken seriously, to be acknowledged as a presence in a room. It is just another way of telling us we do not care what you have to say.

For now, I refuse to change the way I speak.

Instead, I focus on my words, trying to make them too interesting to be ignored. But, like so many other things, I don’t know how much longer I can be bothered to keep fighting for. I feel that women can only stand so many rejections, so much mockery, before we return to the malleability ingrained in us from an early age. I am sure that at some point I will give up and change the way I talk, just like the way I have changed the way I act and how I have changed the way I dress. There is only so much you can sacrifice in the name of a cause, especially one so small. There are so many seemingly greater injustices out there to fight for.

So often, women hope that each small modification will be the last they have to change, the last sacrifice to make before they are granted into the club marked equality. ‘Maybe this sacrifice will be the one that’s worth it; maybe one day I will be as successful and powerful as the men around me, equipped with perfect pitch.’ I am sure that by that time comes (if it ever comes), society will have dreamt up some new affectation to criticise women for. Maybe this new way of speaking will grate on me in the way I will be told it should. Maybe I will let it cloud my judgement of the young women sat before me; let it mask their intelligence and wit.

But maybe I will remember how it feels to be told you have a voice not worth speaking in. And maybe I will listen.

Claudia Davey

I first met Claudia nearly 4 years ago when she joined my school for Sixth Form. It’s fair to say we weren’t the closest but we both developed an appreciation for each other, even from afar. On our last day of school, Claudia wrote me a message in my yearbook that completely took me by surprise and made me rethink my judgement of people entirely – knocked it out the park with that one Claud.

I now look back and wish I’d spent so much more time with this woman who is not only an incredible intellectual but a soul that I am genuinely lucky to know. Claudia has shaped my perspective more than I care to admit.

Claudia is now studying Geography at The University of Cambridge.


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