Guest Post: Women’s Voices, 11 Things We Learned from the 2012 Campaigns

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 01:  Sen. Claire McCask...

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO, a strong female voice (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

I follow issues women face in public speaking, a topic that often gets a curious “Huh?” from people who think there wouldn’t be enough to say to field a blog on the topic in 2012. But when it comes to this year’s U.S. presidential campaigns there’s plenty to observe.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that I need to quote from a 1988 book about campaign rhetoric–Kathleen Hall Jamieson‘s Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking –to sum up the 2012 campaign and women’s voices. Jamieson wrote “History has many themes. One of them is that women should be silent.” In a year alternately called the “year of the woman” and the “war on women,” a year in which we had a female presidential candidate and a record 181 women are running for either the House of Representatives or the Senate, women’s voices have been silenced repeatedly.

I know, I know, you’re yelling as loud as you can at that television screen. But here are 11 things I think we’ve learned about how to discount, interrupt or silence women’s voices during the campaign:

  1. This has been a campaign in which women have been spoken of more than they have been heard from. This New York Times article about the president’s daughters called it in the headline: Obama Girls’ Role: Not to Speak, But to Be Spoken Of. With two men battling it out for president, women don’t get to speak for themselves at the highest levels.
  2. Women who engage in political debate are still dismissed as not ladylike–or weak when they do speak up. Senate candidate Todd Akin described his opponent, incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill, as having been more “ladylike” in her previous campaigns. This year, after debating her, he observed, “she came out swinging, and I think that’s because she was threatened.”
  3. If we don’t like what you’re saying and you’re a female candidate, we’ll just say you’re crazy. You may not agree with Michele Bachmann, who ran for president this time around and won the Iowa straw poll, the first woman to do so. Her other honorific? The only candidate who was asked on national TV “Are you a flake?” for her extreme statements.
  4. The relevant women’s voices belong to those who’ve borne children. I’m going to bet that this year’s most-repeated political phrase was “As a mother, I…” even though no women are running for president. Both political conventions trotted out mother after mother, making those of us who are kickass childless women wonder whether anyone actually wanted our vote, or our voices.
  5. If you’re the candidate’s wife, your opinions fit in a smaller sandbox than they used to. An extension of that motherhood meme: Michele Obama, who has claimed the “Mom-in-chief” title in her campaigning, and Ann Romney, mother of five sons, have at times been reduced to describing the very limited roles they expect to play in their husbands’ presidencies. Makes me yearn for Eleanor Roosevelt, who saved her husband’s nomination in 1940, or Betty Ford, who blew the lid of silence off of breast cancer while she was First Lady.
  6. Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s the first century. Eventually, Rep. Darrell Issa‘s exclusion of women at a congressional hearing on contraception led to activist Sandra Fluke’s testimony at a special hearing convened by women members of Congress, which led to Rush Limbaugh slut-shaming her, which in turn propelled contraception back onto the political agenda–a good thing. But did we have to revert to slut-shaming to silence Fluke, a tactic that dates back to ancient history?
  7. Even women seeking the votes of women don’t have the call to action down. Ann Romney’s awkward “I love you….women!” at the Republican convention belied the campaign’s discomfort with addressing and recruiting women, to my ears. Never have I heard so many women speak awkwardly about their own gender, which makes me wonder about the proportion of male speechwriters working on these campaigns.
  8. We can let women moderate important debates every 20 years or so, but we want them to shut up while they’re doing it. CNN’s Candy Crowley became the first woman in two decades to moderate a presidential debate–and promptly got a hailstorm of criticism for daring to correct a factual error, mid-debate. As linguist Deborah Tannen observed “a moderator who interrupts risks being seen by viewers as rude. When Ms. Crowley told Mr. Romney she would ‘get run out of town’ if she didn’t stop him, she not only stopped him, but cleverly put the responsibility for doing so on others.” Tannen notes that it’s likely that the desire to avoid offending women voters kept the candidates from arguing with Crowley.
  9. Feminists are trying to silence men. This psychological projection trick–accusing feminists of the thing men are trying to do in reverse–isn’t a new tactic. But there’s already a movement afoot to warn that U.S. feminists are going to follow in the political tracks of their sisters in Europe to ban anti-female speech. Notably, it repeats one of the big myths about women and public speaking, that women speak more than men do (in fact, we both speak about the same number of words in a day).
  10. The most kickass speech by a woman politician during this campaign happened in Australia. If, like me, you are thirsty for a full-throated woman politician responding to the underlying and persistent drumbeat of sexist attacks, watch Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s passionate speech in Parliament about her opposition leader’s misogyny as a tonic. In less than a week, this speech had as many views online as the most-watched TED talks, and prompted a dictionary to change its definition of misogyny. It’s a deft turning of her opponent’s accusations back on him.
  11. The most important woman’s voice is absent. If there were a Nobel Prize for irony in a political career, it would belong to Hillary Clinton, who–by dint of her admittedly powerful role as Secretary of State–has had to refrain from engaging in the campaign or debate about the presidential election. While many remark on her absence or what would’ve happened to the tenor of the debates had she been a candidate, she’s been effectively silenced this time around.


Denise Graveline is a Washington, DC-based communications consultant and speaker trainer, and the author of The Eloquent Woman, a blog about women and public speaking. You can read more from Denise here.

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