Women’s Voices – Part 2

(Part 1 here: https://megkingston.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/womens-voices-part-1-small-talk/ )

So what did we learn from Mary Beard’s programme on the Public Voice of Women? A lot of examples from History and Art and Literature, a few from Geography and Entertainment but nothing really from Sports or Science and Nature. (Yes, I nicked the headings from Trivial Pursuit, what’s wrong with that?)

Mary Beard is a highly intelligent, articulate and well-read classics scholar. Hence her experience in and bias towards certain subjects, which made for a fascinating presentation about the historical records (factual and in the fiction of the times) that demonstrate ways in which the sound of a woman’s voice has been regarded. She tried to separate the issue of women’s voices from straightforward misogyny, which I’m not sure is possible. Yes, there are differences, but are these the reason for the discrimination we see today? Shakespeare regularly had women passing themselves off as men by changing their clothes in his plays (never the other way round, as far as I recall), which is even more amusing when you remember that all of his actors would have been male. So a man playing a woman pretending to be a man…

More recently, we know that Margaret Thatcher had training to lower her speaking voice – one way to be taken more seriously in the male-dominated political arena. As a matter of fact, some men in the public eye have had similar training – including actors who’ve been advised to take up smoking to give them gravelly tones. Not a price I’d be willing to pay for a sexier voice!

So men and women alike have realised that we judge people by their speaking tone. Deeper voices are more serious, mature, trustworthy, sexy and therefore something to be aspired to. As a young man, my Dad tried to push his singing voice into the bass register – until he gave up and learned to make the most of his lovely tenor range later in life.

While we’re so close to home, my own voice is deep for a woman – a low alto for any singers reading this. I’ve had people mistake me for a man on the phone. Even one person (Receptionist at the dental surgery I used to attend) who behaved very oddly, asking if the appointment was for me and my “wife” – and once referred to me as “him” to another member of staff. I was amused to realise she must have thought I was cross-dressing or transgender or something. I never bothered to put her right – if she hasn’t learnt after working in that sort of job, then she’s never going to learn that women’s voices aren’t all high, soprano or strident.

I’ve been a member of various writers’ groups over the years and I’ve noticed that the majority of members tend to be women. Yet any men who attend seem to be more likely to get the opportunity to read their work to the group. At a series of meetings in a local group, the men who attended all got to read at every meeting, whilst I was refused the opportunity for four meetings in a row. One man in particular would read long, waffly chapters every week. Now, it could be that my writing wasn’t liked, or any number of reasons, but I believe a gender bias is in operation here. The nominal chairperson at the time was a woman, but she never really took control and the pro-men reading bias steered the meetings.

So, I propose that there’s more at work here than the simple fact that women’s voices are (on average) higher than men’s. That seems to be more a symptom than the cause and the way we’re disregarded goes beyond that. Men with high-pitched voices are regarded as frivolous in the entertainment industry – but in business, they’re still taken more seriously than women, even ones with a lower voice range. I won’t cite personal examples, because I’d risk embarrassing the men in question, but there have been a few. In the working world, I found that men could easily talk over a woman and no-one would blame him for it. The Miss Triggs cartoon cited by Mary Beard is only too true.

In the 20th Century that bastion of UK tradition, the BBC, were responsible for the chocolaty tones of news readers giving out news, both good and bad, in deep, reassuring tones. Nowadays, the “BBC Voice” is something of a joke, but it echoes through our society. They didn’t create it, just gave us a convenient label for the way some men speak. And thinking about the battles that women fought to be allowed to read “serious news” to the nation, media broadcasters haven’t been exactly willing to confront the issue.

So how should we try to rectify the imbalance? How can we tilt ourselves towards a more level playing field?

I don’t have a simple answer. Anything a woman says will be seen as further evidence that she doesn’t have anything useful to contribute, that she should not be listened to. “Oh, you’re always whining about men ignoring you.” I would ask that men start noticing the phenomenon – look out for a woman being shouted over in a meeting, etc. Even if you (a “he”) don’t intervene, it may make you more aware of how often it happens. Women, stand up and be counted when you hear someone complain she’s being ignored. (At least think about supporting her or maybe speaking up for yourself next time.)

This isn’t a trivial matter and it won’t be resolved in a hurry, whatever we do. The examples I’ve cited above all happened, but I’m not saying everyone thinks in a particular way, or that all men will shout down any woman who speaks. But even once would be too often – and I’ve seen it happen many more times than that.

I did suggest at the writers’ group I mentioned earlier, that we should have a time limit on each person’s reading. I even offered to bring an egg timer. This didn’t go down well. But I would propose that idea if I were chairing meetings where a few voices dominated in this way. Feel free to borrow the idea!

Like Mary Beard, I don’t advocate voice training as a solution. I’m sure it does some good for a few individuals, but that isn’t really the problem. The only way this will change is if all of us, men and women, realise we’re more inclined to listen to men, and make a point of hearing women when they do speak.

After all, we might have something worth saying.

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Equality Schmequality

Come on Britain, open your eyes and look around you. Is everyone the same as you? No? Thought not.

I ran a stall at a Christmas Fair yesterday to raise a little money for charity – mainly the MS Society. And Ty Hafan Children’s Hospice, as I’d bought a load of Christmas cards from them to sell. I was also supporting a relatively large event being run in a small village. It’s almost an hour’s drive each way, and Martin and I gave up our Saturday for this. I’m just setting the scene before I start criticising.

Because most people we met were very nice.

But the ones that stick in my mind were the rude ones. The ones who can’t cope with anyone being different from themselves.

One woman wanted Christmas cards, but told me she wouldn’t buy the charity ones because “charity encourages lazy people to expect everything for free”. I sold her some that didn’t say they were charity cards and forgot to tell her where her money would go.

A middle-aged woman told me how much she liked to support new talent and asked me which of my books I would recommend. I suggested The MonSter and the Rainbow, thinking she may appreciate that. She flinched when I mentioned it was about disability, so picked up a copy of Chrystal Heart to read the back. It took about three seconds for her to read my tagline, “She’s a 188 year old, bisexual, cyborg vampire and she might just save our world” and put it down as if she might catch something. She left my stall in a hurry.

I’m afraid if you don’t want to read about people who have disabilities, non-mainstream sexual preferences or interesting personal habits, then you’ve come to the wrong writer.

If anyone’s thinking of reading Chrystal Heart, I should warn you that it includes a character who cross-dresses, someone with a disability and even a redhead. There’s also one character who will behave in an unexpected way after their initial appearance – but you’ll have to wait for the next book to find out who. Unless you’ve already spotted the clue, that is. 😉

Personally, I like a fictional world to bear some resemblance to the one around me. That includes people of different shapes, sizes, skin colours and modes of dress. I’m not going to set a story in the 21st Century and pretend no-one is blind or in a wheelchair, not will I insist all my characters stick to heterosexual relationships and dress in three-piece suits. But I won’t include people from minorities just because of some belief it’s the “right” thing to do.

The weirdest behaviour yesterday, though, were the people who decided I was a rubbish bin for their use. I spotted a man dashing away – having left a couple of polystyrene cups in my stock behind the stall. At least I assume it was him- he didn’t wait to be asked, just came behind our stall and the cups were there when I went to investigate what he was doing. I was too busy to take them to the bin, but I looked round a little later to see a woman adding another cup to the stack.

I said, “Excuse me – that’s not a bin!”
She gestured at my wheelchair, “So you put it where you want to.”
I tried again. “Can’t you put your cup in the bin?”
She snorted, “You people,” pointing again at my wheelchair. Then she left.

She didn’t know me, she hadn’t even looked at my stall and evidently had no interest in me, except to assume that my wheelchair entitled her to treat me like a servant. Or a bin.

A few minutes later, I spotted a man adding an empty beer can to the growing pile of rubbish in my stock.
“That isn’t a bin,” I said.
“It’s not mine,” he replied. I must have looked as dumbfounded as I felt.
“We just found it outside,” he explained.
“So you thought you’d add it to my stock?”
The same woman who’d shouted at me before shouted again, “Just leave her to it, if she’s going to be bad-tempered about it!” and the man left again.

Bad-tempered? Yes, I was. I think I have every right to be bad-tempered when someone’s rude to me, expects me to clear up her rubbish and then sends her husband (or whoever) to do the same. She could have told him to drop the can into the bag of rubbish in the car park – or to put it under the stall closest to the door. Instead of dumping it in the stock of the person in the wheelchair who had the nerve to complain that she wasn’t a bin.

I hadn’t gone all that way to be a servant for a lazy woman without any courtesy for someone who happens to be in a wheelchair. Neither do I write my books for people who can’t see beyond their own cosy world.

If you disagree, don’t try to read my work. It’s not erotica, but neither is it dumbed down to only include white, middle-class middle-aged people with no unusual habits. If you’ve bought a copy, it’s yours to burn as heresy, if that’s what you want. In fact – you’re welcome to burn as many copies as you can buy. I don’t mind. I’ll even sign them for you, if that’ll make you feel better.

It isn’t illegal for someone to be different from you. What is illegal is treating them as lesser because of those differences. And being rude when they object.

Come on Britain, we’re better than this, aren’t we?