Breaking Voices

The life of an academic historian has occasional hazards.  When our School sent its collection of Parliamentary Papers to be repaired, they dealt with an insect infestation by dusting them with arsenic, so we are warned to wash our hands after using them.  I’ve heard rumours of a poisonous spider that lives in the South African Archives; does anyone know if this is true?  A Pacific historian I know nearly died after treading on a stonefish while taking a student group to Vanuatu.

Usually though, the main dangers are mental rather than physical.  Australian historians risk becoming collateral damage in the History Wars (and most nations have an equivalent hot-button historical issue).  Teaching can be stressful, as is the imperative to publish or perish.  But we don’t use knives or chain saws, fly helicopters or breathe coal dust.  It’s all inside work with no heavy lifting.

So I was startled a couple of weeks ago to be told that I probably have a work-related injury.

I’ve been lecturing for nearly 40 years, usually in 2-hour blocks, often followed by tutorials where, although the ideal is to listen while students do the talking, the reality is very different, with yawning silences that need to be filled.

Actors and singers are taught how to project their voices, but we lecturers just pick it up as we go.  I’ve been to an ear, nose and throat specialist and a speech therapist recently, and they both think that my chronic cough is a consequence of all this talking.  The problem isn’t uncommon, apparently, but I suspect it’s more common amongst women.

Recently I wrote about silencing women’s voices – but I was really thinking (as we historians tend to do) about women’s written records.  But women’s voices were effectively silenced long ago when the secondary sex characteristics were handed out.  Boys’ voices break at puberty, and become deeper, stronger and more resonant; women’s voices do not.

As King Lear said of Cordelia:

Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman.

Excellent it may be, but it’s a damn nuisance in the public sphere.

Until the 20th century, all public discourse depended on public speaking – in the Agora, the Forum, the Witan, the Parliament (the name comes from the French parler, to speak).  Boys from Demosthenes and Cicero onwards were trained in oratory and rhetoric, and while much of that training dealt with the most persuasive way to put an argument, it also involved training in voice projection.  According to Plutarch, Demosthenes overcame a speak defect by practicing on the beach, competing with the sound of the wind and waves and speaking with pebbles in his mouth.

When Henry Higgins tried the same trick with Eliza Doolittle, she swallowed a marble, but even without going that far, women are placed at a serious disadvantage because their voices are usually not as strong.  Training helps – ask anyone who has listened to the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute – but opera singers have another major advantage: an audience who has paid good money and is prepared to listen quietly.

When Queen Elizabeth addressed the troops at Tilbury before the Armada in 1588, I’m sure she too had a silent and respectful audience, but even so, I wonder how many people heard what she said (there are various different versions of her speech).  The visual theatrics of the occasion were more important.

Elizabeth I Armada Portrait

The Armada Portrait, painted to celebrate the 1588 victory. Elizabeth’s dress speaks louder than her voice ever could!

Women did speak in public before the 20th century, but it was rare.  Some women preached during the English Civil War period, when there was a great sense of a world turned upside down, but few dissenters continued the practice beyond 1660, except for the Society of Friends.  Women continued to speak in Quaker meetings, and since their practice was (and is) to sit in silence until someone is moved by the spirit to speak, no doubt women could make themselves heard.

It was the Quakers who unknowingly provoked one of the most notorious putdowns of women preachers when James Boswell mentioned to Dr. Johnson that he had attended

a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach.  Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs.  It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

Thanks, Sam.

Put a speaker in front of a hostile audience such as a political rally, and women find it harder to be heard.  Worse, in raising our voices, without artificial help women often become shrill, raising the dread spectre of the harridan.  Some of the cruelest cartoons against the suffrage movement, or the Women’s Christian Temperance Association, allude to their shrillness.

The Shrieking Sister from Punch 1906

Technology has made all the difference.  The microphone was first developed in conjunction with the telephone in the 1890s.  By the 1920s it allowed politicians to give speeches to larger audiences than ever before, and the radio broadcast them more widely still.  Most of us now probably associate those interwar microphones and broadcasts with George VI in The King’s Speech, but you could equally think of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies.  The film itself draws the parallel.

As The King’s Speech shows, it’s not only women who have difficulty speaking in public.  My speech therapist tells me she heard an interview with a government minister on TV the other morning.  He kept clearing his throat, so much that he had to apologise because it interfered with his answers.  He’s a former union official, so has probably shouted through an inadequate megaphone at hostile meetings many times, and the strain is showing.  Greg Combet, should you ever read this, you really should check with a speech therapist.

George VI’s speech, first broadcast in 1939, is available to hear in the BBC Archives here

This time last year:
Pineapple Chunks, 1 May 2011
Where were you when…?, 4 May 2011
Little Bags of Poison, 8 May 2011

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5 responses to “Breaking Voices

  1. I hope the problem with your voice is not serious! Is there any way to ameliorate the problem?

    • Hi Sally – believe me, I’m absolutely thrilled, since it looks as if somebody may finally have diagnosed a cough I’ve had for 10 years! And the dogs are getting used to listening to me make NGGG and EEE noises.

  2. I’ve been fascinated by the fact that most public figures in the past did not have amplification available to them. I wonder how often the good projection of the voice was part of the compliment, ‘a good speaker’? Some men also have difficulty projecting their voices. How many did not take up public office simply because they could not be heard?

    But are women’s voices really generally physically weaker or is that an impression that the sexism in our society foists on us? I come from a family with women who naturally have very strong voices – if we put our foot in our mouths everyone knows about it. None of my forebears became public speakers simply because that was not a feminine thing to do, although they did become teachers and Sunday School teachers like many other women – both jobs requiring a strong voice among other things.

    A higher pitched female voice can be just as ‘strong’ as a lower-pitched male voice in terms of volume. However, our society has been historically conditioned not to ‘hear’ the female voice, no matter how loud and clear it was. When they were heard women’s loud voices were regarded as ‘shrill’ whereas men’s loud voices were regarded as ‘powerful’, maybe ‘assertive’ – all positive characteristics. Historically women were taught to lower their voices in order to appear demure, men were encouraged to raise their voices.

    I think that the breaking of boy’s voices is not that relevant in the scheme of things.

  3. As always – I think of something I should have said in that micro-second after I have clicked ‘post comment’. I hope your voice recovers well and quickly. At least your dogs can enjoy your vocal exercises!

    • Thank you!
      I think there’s something in the tone of voice, too. Public women seem to develop a lower tone – think Maggie Thatcher – to avoid the danger of sounding screechy. But it’s certainly true that we equate authority with a particular voice style. I’ve heard that microphones were designed to work with male voices, too – but don’t know enough about it, really. And I take your point about women as teachers, often in very rowdy classrooms.

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