Women Speaking in Public Discussion Sept 1996

Query From Rachel Green grgreen@iinet.net.au 02 Sept 1996

I am interested in the history of women speaking out in public and am trying to discover the origins of the prohibition against women speaking out.

Borisoff writes in The Power to Communicate "throughout much of recorded history women have been forbidden or actively discouraged from exercising their power of speech in public settings."

I am wanting to find out in exactly what way it was forbidden? Who made it forbidden and how? Was it a written rule or an unwritten one? Was there actual legislation that prevented women from speaking out and if so, when was it repealed?

If anyone has any relevant comments or information in this area, references, articles, etc. I would be delighted to receive them. Thanks for considering this.


>From Carolyn Brewer carolyn@central.murdoch.edu.au 03 Sept 1996

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage(Eds) History of Woman Suffrage (New York, Fowler & Wells, Pub., 1881; reprint Salem Ayer Co. Publishing Inc, 1985 3 vols.)

These books, in more than one place, highlight how difficult it was for women to speak in public - and to the biblical texts which men used to keep women quiet. The women themselves are 'amazing' in response!! Hope this is helpful.

>From Tiffany Kay Wayne tkwayne@cats.ucsc.edu 03 Sept 1996

You did not indicate if there is a particular culture you are interested in studying re: women speaking in public. In the American context, I would recommend looking at Mary Ryan's Women in Public: From Banners to Ballots. It is useful for thinking about gendered spaces and for expanding/rethinking the terms public and private. Ryan looks at public events and ceremnies such as parades and public speeches and the presence of women and of gender in planning such events. She also attempts to review the literature on the thinking about the public and who participates--so it may lead you to other sources.

>From Lisa Cody lcody@cmcvax.mckenna.edu 03 Sept 1996

As a historian of midwifery and related topics, I can tell you that the prohibition against women's public speech was hardly universal, at least in the British case for the 17th and 18th centuries because "juries of matrons" and female midwives were considered the appropriate authorities over several public matters related to women.

When women had been raped, or "pleaded their belly" when sentenced for a crime, or accused of infanticide, female midwives examined the woman under question; when single women found themselves pregnant they could swear a paternity oath against the father (or as critics insisted, the putative father. These forms of speech were public and recognized by the courts. There were several quite remarkable cases where women spoke publicly: Susan Bruce's piece on the midwife Elizabeth Cellier in Genders 2 (Summer 1988); Rachel Weil's "The Politics of Legitimacy" in Lois Schwoerer's collection on The Glorious Revolution (1992), and a very recent, exciting piece about "female debating societies" in Gender and History (1996)---sorry that I can't recall the author's name.

Although I agree that women did not have the same access to authorities, etc, the problem is more nuanced, and I think these three essays are provocative and provide great food for thought about the ways in which women have spoken, even when there are few formal forums for them.

>From Janet Gray jsgary@pucc.princeton.edu 03 Sept 1996

I suspect this issue of women speaking in public inflects differently in different national/cultural settings, but it's worth looking into the topic of Republicanism (many sources on this) for eras & places associated w/ the rise of the middle class. Basically, classical republicanism set civic action in the public meeting place-the ideal was that citizens would debate public issues until the best, rational consensus was reached. But of course, women and other "others" were not included in this citizenry. So all kinds of trends converge in the proscription of women's speaking: the formation of gendered separate spheres, notions about women's irrationality, in addition to the convenient citation of St. Paul. And Dr. Samuel Johnson: didn't he say a woman speaking in public was like a dog walking on its hind legs-amazing that they can do it at all?

>From Carolyn Brucken carolyn.bricken@arch1.nara.gov 03 Sept 1996

You might find Karlyn Kohrs Campbell's book Man Cannot Speak For Her a very useful place to start. She offers a rhetorical analysis of how women overcame the injunctions against public speaking and the book has a nice bibliography. You might also find the American anti-slavery debates of interest, especially the written exchanges between the anti-slavery speakers Angelina and Sarah Grimke and Congregational ministers who condemned their public speaking before "promiscuous" audiences of men and women. Good luck!

>From Maria Griffin JGriffin@nr.ini.net 03 Sept 1996

By sheer happenstance, I am reading Will Durant's Story of Civilization, Vol. 3, "Caesar and Christ", which focuses on the Roman Empire, really beginning with Augustus. There is almost more information and detail than the mind can take in, however, there are several pertinent discussions about the "rights of women" during the rule of various Roman leaders (Durant's time frame jumps around a bit, but this volume seems to go up through 180AD). There are more 'contemporary' books, however, since so much of the law of Western Civilization came from Roman law, this might be one starting place on the prohibition of women speaking in public. Rome relied heavily for quite some time on 'the rule of the father,' which entitled the father to kill any member of his household for defiance or disobedience, to which Durant cites a couple examples of where fathers killed their sons.

Roman law spelled out the rights of women, and Durant indicates ways in which Romans evaded many of those laws. Women were considered to be 'weak-minded' even though education was extended to upper class women, even through university for mathematics, Greek, rhetoric, philosophy. I cannot recollect if there was a specific law prohibiting women from speaking in public, although custom certainly prohibited it.

>From Antoinette Burton hiburton@jhuvms.hcf.jhu.edu 03 Sept 1996

I've just been reading Carla Peterson's Doers of the World which is about African-American women writers and speakers in the ante- and post-bellum North. She has wonderfully insightful things to say about what it meant for black women of this period to speak in public, how it put them at risk, but how their itinerant lecturing opened up new cultural and political spaces for them. I highly recommend it.

>From Cara A. Finnegan cara@nwu.edu 03 Sept 1996

In Karlyn Kohrs Campbell's excellent two-volume study of early american feminist rhetoric, Man Cannot Speak For Her (NY: Praeger, 1989), she observes: "...for much of their history women have been prohibited from speaking, a prohibition reinforced by such powerful cultural authorities as Homer, Aristotle, and Scripture....In the Politics, Aristotle approvingly quotes the words, 'Silence is a woman's glory,'...and the epistles of Paul enjoin women to keep silent (1)." In American, Scriptural authority was often invoked to keep women who wished to speak out on public moral issues such as abolition, etc. from doing so. At least in the United States, much of this is based upon a very clear sense that the two spheres--the male, public one and the female, private one--should remain separate from one another.

If you find anything on other places in the world, including Australia, please post it. As a rhetorician, I for one would be interested in what you uncover. Good luck.

>From Cate Palczewski Catherine.Palczewski@uni.edu 03 Sept 1996

You might want to look at Jamieson's Beyond the Double Bind. It is not a history of prohibition, but it does contain certain numerous interesting quotations concerning it--it would be a starting point for finding primary citations. Also, look at Campbell's two volume Man Cannot Speak for Her.

>From Miriam Reumann Reumann@aol.com 03 Sept 1996

For early America, Mary Beth Norton's new Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of american Society(NY:Knopf, 1996) would be helpful. Norton analyzes court cases, family disputes, etc., in New Haven and the Chesapeake between 1620 and 1670, and presents a nuanced view of the opportunities for and constraints upon women's speech in a range of settings. Like Mary Ryan (already mentioned), she complicates any simple ideas of a "public/private" opposition. This is also an enthralling read!

>From Wilma King kingw@pilot.msu.edu 03 Sept 1996

See Maria W. Stewart for discussion regarding women speaking in public in the nineteenth century.

>From Ellen Donovan edonovan@frank.mtsu.edu 03 Sept 1996

I can only suggest (not being a scholar in this area) that you might want to check history of the Christian church. St. Paul, in several epistles in the New Testament, says that women should not be speaking in the church. I believe that his injunction arose out of Judaic practices.

>From Linda Grant De Pauw minervacen@aol.com 04 Sept 1996

While working on my book, Battle Cries and Lullabies: A Brief History of Women and War, I came across discussions of the greater power of women's voices compared to those of men. Physiologically, the higher pitch of women and children is more easily heard--indeed it drowns out male voices in mixed choirs where the sopranos stand out. Women are also more likely to punish verbally (by scolding or by laying on a curse) while men, who have less authority through the ear, are more likely to hit out. The bans on women speaking--or singing--may be in part a reaction to their linguistic superiority.

>From Joan Gundersen jrgunder@coyote.csusm.edu 04 Sept 1996

Although some of the writings of the new testament attributed to Paul say that women should keep silent in church, the same new testament records women prophesying and teaching. The role of the prophet has always been open to women and was used by women to gain a public voice in religion throughout the ages. The real problem with the question about women speaking in public, however, is not with women SPEAKING, but with the use of the word PUBLIC. Public space is a very fuzzy concept. Before 1800 lines between public and private were very blurred in western societies and often was less of a PLACE than a concept. As was already noted by another poster to the list, women could speak in court (and be heard) if they spoke as an expert on women's bodies. Women also testified on other areas and even represented their families in cases. What they couldn't do under normal circumstances was be the judge. Even after 1800 when the idea of separate spheres supposedly divided public and private, the division was filled with exceptions.

>From David Doughan doughan@lgu.ac.uk 05 Sept 1996

Just a niggle about sopranos drowning out men in mixed choirs. I expect I am not the only choral singer to have the opposite experience-a typical well-balanced (amateur) choir seems to consist roughly of 70% sopranos and altos, 20% basses and 10% tenors. I suspect that this has less to do with innate vocal power (after all ,Jessye Norman can sing as loud as Luciano Pavarotti) than with experience of effective vocal projection - in small professional groups numbers are usually even.

On another related point: the BBC was historically very reluctant to have women as radio announcers/presenters. It justified this by (among many other dubious tactics) claiming that the higher frequencies jarred more on listeners' ears. As late as 1972 I attended a radio production seminar at which the then head of staff training (radio presentation) asserted as a Scientific Fact that women just couldn't announce. They could, of course, give out recipes on "Woman's Hour", but that was another matter...things have changed.

>From Genevieve G. McBride gmcbride@csd.uwm.edu 06 Sept 1996

They haven't changed enough. There are still advertising textbooks that state women's voices are less persuasive than men's for selling products because audiences find men to be more believable, i.e., :authority figures" with higher "credibility quotients,", etc.

For many years, even "feminine products" (not feminine hygiene products, for which ads were long banned from the airwaves) were sold almost solely by men. And the BBC practices above are still implicitly in place at (U.S.) stations run by those of us who were taught the same "scientific facts" in the '60s...and '70s...and well into the '80s, when I hear it stated again in grad school.

So, I guess we'll know we're really making progress when the pop culture slogan becomes, "Would you want to buy a used car from this woman?"

>From Rachel Green grgreen@iinet.net.au 09 Sept 1996

Re: David Doughan's and Genevieve G. McBride's comments re: women in the media/advertising:

The history that has been described for the BBC is the same for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. However, things have certainly changed here with regards to the number of women on the ABC. However, it is noticeable that in Perth at least the main commercial radio station only has one female presenter although I think all the producers are women. The woman in question does not have a low pitched voice, which is interesting.

Deep men's voices, several with glottal creak, still dominate in the advertising world though.

Thanks to everyone for offering comments on women speaking in public. Everyone's comments have been appreciated - and any more are welcome.

>From Rae Frances R.Frances@unsw.edu.au 11 Sept 1996

I don't know if anyone has already mentioned this, but Islamic Fundamentalists have very strong taboos about women speaking in public based on the alleged seductiveness of women's voices. A devout woman should ideally not speak to anyone outside her immediate family circle: if required to answer the door to a male not of her family, she should respond to the enquirer in a monotone and immediately fetch a male relative. (Door to door salesmen have a really hard time in Saudi Arabia!) Addressing a public crowd would be unthinkable.

I'm no expert on Islam, but I gather these strictures evolved in the period after the Prophet's death and the defeat of his wife, Aisla (?)/

Closer to home, there is interesting research being done on the participation of women in political activity and their use of public space. See especially Joy Damousi and Judith Smart's articles on WWI (both in Labour History, 1993 and 1986, I think) and Bruce Scates' forthcoming book on the 1890s: A New Australia (Cambridge U Press, 1997).

>From Zelda Anslinger rygh50B@prodigy.com 18 Sept 1996

Hello! I'm not in academia, but only an amateur! I really enjoy this list.

Don't know who brought up the questions about the prohibitions against women speaking in public (we had a HD crash a few days ago), but here's a quote from Susan B. Anthony on that topic:

" 'Let your women keep silence in the churches.' That was the text they always hurled at our heads. Before giving a lecture I have known every minister in the town to denounce us from the pulpit beforehand, calling us infidels, because they said our speaking in public was in direct opposition to St. Paul's teaching. As a rule, on the night of the lecture, the ministers arranged prayer-meetings at the same hour, and made the women understand that their soul's salvation depended on their attending the meeting."--Letter, 1895

Quoted in Failure is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words, ed. Lynn Sherr, p.249. Originally appeared in San Francisco Call, May 20, 1895.


P.S. Susan B. Anthony had a lot of pithy things to say about a variety of topics, BTW. If you would like to read her 1869 letter to the Internal Revenue Service, you may view it at


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