First of all, I report with relief that Afghanistan President Karzai did veto the law I wrote about in my last post. In a country where honour killings of women – and their children – are on the rise, this is a positive action yet hardly a step toward securing basic human rights for women. Alas.
While we in the West pride ourselves as being as above such barbarisms, it seems we play Hun here and there. Some shocking facts from the International Business Times:
- In Arkansas, a man can legally beat his wife no more than once a month.
- In Stafford County, Virginia; a man can legally beat his wife on the courthouse steps before 8:00 pm.
- In South Carolina and Huntington, West Virginia; a man can legally beat his wife on the courthouse steps on Sundays.
In a recent article in the London Review of Books, writer and scholar Mary Beard discusses the silencing of women in public discourse, tracing it back to the “first recorded example of a man telling a woman ‘to shut up’” in the Odyssey when Telemachus sends his mother to her room for the crime of speaking her wishes before an assembly of men, her suitors actually.
“Mother,” he says, “go back up into your quarters and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff…speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.”
Well, I’d just like to say that if ever my son on the Eve of Manhood tries to dismiss me to the Singer sewing machine, he’ll have it coming to him. And don’t think Penelope took this sweetly. She might have gone back to her loom and wheel, but who’s to say she didn’t spin a whip.
What Beard points out is that this long-standing patriarchal tradition of silencing women in the public space has become so ingrained and normalized we unquestioningly associate the lower, male voice with authority and the higher female range with a lack thereof. It is known that Margaret Thatcher took voice lessons to master the lower registers — just short of Barry White; Angela Merkel’s speech, while not as low proceeds even and steadily to avoid embarrassing squeaks of emotion; Hilary Clinton also underwent vocal training “to find her real voice.” I’ve come across descriptions of her former “false” one as a “raspy crescendo” that “guaranteed to remind one of fingernails on a chalkboard.” Even Bush’s silly Texas drawl didn’t earn such scathing reviews. But, then, he’s a man.
The association of authority with masculinity is like air – we breathe it but don’t see it. In not recognizing its arbitrariness and the culturally created phenomenon it is, we continue to perpetuate its bind. As Beard points out, the Greeks, back in the day, had the good sense to be somewhat uneasy about this fusing; the persuasive, seductive speech of orators emitted, after all, a whiff of the feminine. Today, we no longer sense the tenuousness of the connection which makes an authentically feminine voice of authority a challenge to unearth, uphold, and value like our lives depended on it. And I’m beginning to think they do.
As an artist I prefer the kitchen towel route of twisting official discourses to wring out their lies. What may sound eccentric or whimsical in my work is actually an underground feminine contingent going for the jugular of linguistic officialdom. Pussy Riot, to my mind, does gorgeous work. With Putin representing the voice of authority, our Russian sisters have to some serious vocal contortions to perform at the mic.
What Beard advocates is a “some old fashioned consciousness-raising about what we mean by the voice of authority and how we’ve come to construct it.”
Here’s a good place to start: Imagine yourself in Penelope’s sandals. What would you say to your teen-age Telemachus?