I've just finished watching Oh Do Shut Up, Dear! Mary Beard on the Public Voice of Women on BBC iPlayer. The programme was shown yesterday evening on BBC4. It was timely viewing, because I'd been thinking about writing a post on what I thought of the limitations imposed by society on women, and whether to accept them demurely or not. Professor Beard's lucid talk has given me a better focus on the matter of women's speaking rights.
She is Professor of Classics at Cambridge, and the Wikipedia article on her is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Beard_(classicist). I first began to notice her TV appearances during 2012, but she has been discussing important issues for some time.
My original post was to be on the lines that when contemplating transition and its effects on my life in 2008, I had understood perfectly that once I had lived through the coming-out, and the initial year or so of transition, and had begun to be accepted as an ordinary woman, then I would tumble downstairs in the pecking order.
I saw that I might get ignored if I had a point to make. I had never been notably resolute or assertive in my spoken dealings with people, but having the basic right to speak had never before been denied to me. It came automatically with male status. Whatever I said might of course be examined and rejected, but nobody was going to stop me putting forth an opinion. But being female meant that I could be stopped. Alternatively, I might stop myself - using 'keeping quiet' as a basic passing technique.
The point I am making is that in my very first thoughts on what transition would entail, I recognised that personal power would slip from my hands; that I would lose status and credibility; and that on occasion I'd see bad decisions made on my behalf by self-important men who 'knew best'. Men who could decide on matters affecting my future without any reference to what I wanted. They would not let me intervene, nor have a say. They could refuse to listen, and get away with it. This aspect of female life, being pooh-poohed and dismissed by condescending men, would be galling. But it seemed inescapable. I resolved to endure it as part and parcel of the whole package I was going to get, a reality that had to be faced.
It was ironic that successfully feminising my voice would rob me of clout. Professor Beard, in her historical survey of the roots of current male attitudes to women's speech, made the point that the high-pitched woman's voice had always attracted a host of put-downs. Men had likened it to hysterical yapping and squawking. In contrast, a man's deep voice was considered dignified, and full of good sense, something to pay attention to. In operatic terms, it's the soaring emotion of the soprano versus the heavyweight power of the tenor. No woman can sing Nessun Dorma properly. And no man can sing like Madame Butterfly - but what man cares?
So where now? Professor Beard made her case well, how women had in all ages - including modern times - been discouraged to speak, but she had no instant general remedy to suggest. Nor have I.
It does occur to me however that a trans woman has an edge in this matter. Such a woman has had male-role experience, for example if she ever had to put across complex ideas at office meetings, or was required to conduct contentious interviews. She would know what it is to be carefully listened to. I therefore think it is incumbent on trans women to use their past experience to jolt men out of their complacent assumption that they are the best speakers, and the only ones that deserve to be heard.