by Lora Johns
I recently read Anne Helen Peterson’s book Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. Peterson, a professor turned BuzzFeed culture writer, explores the boundaries of acceptable femininity and the famous women who have transgressed them. The book picks apart the hidden assumptions we make about how people — and women, in particular — move through the world, and what happens when a woman fails to conform to society’s unspoken rules of behavior.
The chapter on Hillary Clinton stood out as especially relevant to the librarian in me. Her chapter is called “Too Shrill.” It begins by quoting men who were surveyed on their opinions of her. A common theme emerges: Her personality is abrasive and arrogant. She’s unlikable and uncharismatic. For many, this meant that she could not be as good a president as a man.
But “shrillness,” Peterson contends, is “just a word to describe what happens when a woman, with her higher-toned voice, attempts to speak loudly . . . when they attempt to command attention in the same manner as men.”
This concept envelops not only Secretary Clinton’s personal trajectory, but the careers of women in power everywhere. Clinton is just the most salient reminder that society still treats professional women as less than men. The presidential campaigns leading up to the 2016 election highlighted how “charisma” is inherently stacked against female candidates. Charisma in politics (or in law, or any other public-facing profession) is what sets someone apart as a leader — someone we deem worthy to hold power over us. In important respects, making people believe in your inherent likability is more important than your experience or bona fides. For women, attempting to do so by effacing “feminine” qualities (being emotional, wearing frou-frou clothes, crying) and embracing “masculine” qualities (being assertive, speaking loudly, attempting charisma) can backfire, with audiences perceiving these personae as either robotic or castrating.
Why is this relevant to the RIPS blog? The social structures that undergird this dislike of the powerful woman pervade more than just politics. We likely see it in our own workplaces and classrooms — not to mention courtrooms. Even at the Supreme Court, female advocates and Justices are interrupted at much higher rates than their male colleagues. As a legal research professional, it may be harder to establish control of a class or effectively communicate one’s authority on a subject if you are a woman. Women need to work harder to prove their worthiness — and at the same time are often penalized for that work.
On the flip side, these cultural expectations are hard-wired into all of us, men and women alike. If you’re an instructor or a moot court judge, do you trust yourself to assess a student’s performance independent of their gender? As a librarian, it may be easier to dismiss patrons (or colleagues) as rude or unreasonable if they are women. Can you trust that the lens of shrillness has not warped your judgment?
There is no glib or easy answer. What must ultimately change is how we conceive of who can be a leader. Women’s voices on average are simply higher-pitched than men’s. “Shrillness,” then, boils down to the fact that most people believe that what a leader should sound like is inherently male. After all, we have had comparatively few historical counterexamples. Until we see women as leaders on par with men, the best we can do is to be mindful of our own biases and take conscious measures to counteract them — in politics, in the classroom, and in our workplaces — whenever the opportunity arises.