Women speak

iwd-photo-call-westminster-hall_8-march.jpgThere’s talk this week of Home Secretary Theresa May being a future contender for the leader of the Conservative Party. Could she be our second female Prime Minster I wonder?

This brings me (on International Women’s Day) to think about speeches given by women.


It’s not surprising that so many of the speeches we’ve come across in our research are by men since women are underrepresented at all levels of public life. The situation in the UK is particularly embarrassing – currently, women are 22 per cent of MPs (ranked joint 57th in the world – see graph below), 20 per cent of Peers in the House of Lords and 34 per cent of all Government Ministers (Source: Centre for Women & Democracy).

Percentage of Women and Men in Parliament (Lower or Single House) worldwide

Situation as of 1st February 2013 . Red bar is United Kingdom. Source: Inter Parliamentary Union


I also took another look at the 2012 party conference speeches of David Cameron, Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg (see also Emotional Words) to see how many times each of them said ‘he’ and she’. Perhaps women are fairly represented in the content of speeches even if they are not in represented as the performers of speeches. Not exactly scientific but here’s the results:

Occurences of ‘he’ and ‘she’ in party leader speeches at Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat party conferences, 2012

David Cameron (Conservative) Ed Milliband (Labour) Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats)
Instances of ‘he’ 21 40 4
Instances of ‘she’ 1 9 0

Subject matter

This under-representation is not surprising but it could be a problem for my process since three of the five dancers I am working with are women. But fortunately we have found some really wonderful and varied examples of political speeches (for example when I asked everyone to find a speech by someone of the same age, gender and nationality). It’s certainly worth mentioning this (now famous) speech by Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard in which she exposes the hypocrisy and sexism of her political opponent Tony Abbott. I highly recommend this if you haven’t seen it before.

It is worth noting that this magnificent speech is about gender, and many (but by no means all) notable speeches by women are about women’s rights or families, possibly reflecting the marginalisation of these issues by male speakers and the tendency of roles concerned with these issues to be given to women.

Sandra Fluke

A particularly striking case of marginalisation and gendered content that Speeching‘s Sarah Gero told me about is that of Sandra Fluke, an American attorney and women’s rights activist.

As Wikipedia explains, in 2012, the House of Representative’s ‘Oversight and Government Reform Committee’ was discussion whether insurance should have a contraception mandate. Democrats requested that the committee add Sandra Fluke to a panel composed primarily of clergy and theologians so she could talk about the importance of requiring insurance plans to cover birth control. The (Republican) Committee chairman refused, stating that Fluke lacked expertise, was not a member of the clergy, and her name was not submitted in time for the hearing.

Democratic members criticized the decision not to include Fluke since it left the panel with only male members and the following week, the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee convened a meeting to invite Fluke to speak. There, she put forward reasons why Georgetown University should be compelled to offer health care that covers contraceptive drugs, in spite of the Catholic university’s moral opposition to artificial birth control.

In response, American conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh commented ion her speech saying “[Fluke] essentially says that she must be paid to have sex—what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.” Nice man.

Political figures, including President Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner, voiced disapproval of Limbaugh’s comments and Fluke ended up as a featured speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Here’s her speech:

Performing speeches

But I think the questions raised by women’s political speeches are more than ones of representation, as I need to also consider the way of performing or the content of the performance. And as a man myself (the under representation of women in choreography is another story) and someone with a particular aversion to dance with traditionally gendered roles, I’m worried that I could end up doing what happens so often in politics – expecting women to perform as men in an attempt to be ‘gender-blind’.

Research has shown that voters prefer politicians with lower-pitched voices and even in leadership roles typically held by women (for example president of a parent-teacher association) people prefer women leaders with low-pitched voices. UK psychologist Sue Lovegrove claims “Lower voices do tend to have an aura of authority” and this is why Margaret Thatcher was coached (by Laurence Olivier) to lower the pitch of her voice:

But looking at some old research from the business world it would seem that women need to be careful not to be too masculine if they want to succeed. Lovegrove believes that Thatcher went too far and “lost credibility because it sounded patronising.”

It seems that women can’t easily win either way in a system designed by and for men – they are either too feminine to be taken seriously or they have to mask their own feminine qualities with masculine ones. This gets to the heart of feminist epistemology, which asserts that traditional claims in philosophy about how we know what we know, are based on a male viewpoint of the world. Because men have had a different place in society and in families than women (for example they don’t give birth or breast feed so they have a different relationship to their bodies than women do), they automatically have a different starting point to philosophy.

“At the most general level, impersonal knowledge [for example mathematics] is coded ‘masculine’ while personal knowledge is coded ‘feminine.’ The former enjoys higher prestige than the latter.”

Xinyan Jiang (2005) Feminist Epistemology: An Introduction

So even though women now take part in philosophy alongside men (more or less), epistemology is still traditionally male-designed: impersonal and acting as if we can think about things from a universal perspective that doesn’t take into account our class, gender and race.

New forms

What this might mean is that to really be inclusive, political speeches need to expand and diversify in their form, perhaps to me more embodied and to operate outside of traditional rhetorical conventions. As Helene Cixous wrote almost 40 years ago:

“Listen to a woman speak at a public gathering (if she hasn’t painfully lost her wind). She doesn’t “speak,” she throws her trembling body forward; she lets go of herself, she flies; all of her passes into her voice, and it’s with her body that she vitally supports the “logic” of her speech. Her flesh speaks true. She lays herself bare. In fact, she physically materializes what she’s thinking; she signifies it with her body. In a certain way she inscribes what she’s saying, because she doesn’t deny her drives the intractable and impassioned part they have in speaking. Her speech, even when “theoretical” or political, is never simple or linear or “objectified,” generalized: she draws her story into history.”

Helene Cixous (1975) The Laugh of the Medusa (hat tip Speeching‘s Colm Gallagher)

Although of course there is already diversity in political speeches. What I have been writing about here are parliamentary speeches but a political speech might just as well be a conversation between two citizens.

Hamish MacPherson is a dance artist.


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