Scribbling Women

Per1Maybe John McWhorter is just being provocative in his post “Why Kim Kardashian Can’t Write Good.” Following up on his argument that texting and tweeting amount to “talking with your fingers,” he contends that we are at the dawn of a renewed oral society. We shouldn’t be so concerned, he says, that our students’ formal writing skills are slipping. Other primarily oral societies — the ancient Greeks, for instance — managed to think critically and develop persuasive arguments. “With modern technology,” he observes, “you can just talk again — and because that is what has always come more naturally to people, increasingly, they do.”

I’m sure McWhorter will receive plenty of backlash to this argument. His critics will range from those who would point out the still-prevalent reams of formal writing to those who have their finger on the difference between history as we now understand it and history as the ancient Greeks understood it. I’d like to observe just one small point: Those Greek rhetoricians he refers to were all male. And while plenty of other things contributed to the patriarchal nature of ancient Greek society, I have trouble imagining an oral society that does not privilege male speech.

The ability to write, after all, was a chief liberator for women’s “voices.” Much academic work has been done on the epistolary tradition (and as McWhorter observes, 19th-century letters were a type of “formal writing,” compared to text and email today.) Early women novelists, to be taken seriously, frequently adopted male pen names. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman was able to play on the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen to promote “rational” education of women, including works of “intellect” (though when push came to shove, she remained in favor of reading novels, “for any kind of reading I think better than leaving a blank still a blank”).

But far more than letter-writing, opinions expressed in the public sphere are vulnerable to the louder, deeper voices, larger physical presence, and larger gestures of men in that same space. We need look no further than recent instances of abuse toward female TV reporters in that most civilized of countries, Canada, for evidence. Or the treatment Hillary Clinton received when she teared up in public compared with the treatment Joe Biden or John Boehner has received. High or “shrill” voices come in for their share of mockery and dismissal. And so on. Kardashian’s ridiculous tweet, if it is indeed “talking with the fingers,” surely received more mocking press coverage than similar absurd tweets by male celebrities like Justin Bieber.

The playing field in formal written expression isn’t exactly level. We can’t go about always disguising our identities via initials and pseudonyms. Hawthorne’s complaint against “scribbling women” extends to serious essays and fiction by women, whose book covers receive notably lighter treatment than comparable books by men. But ask any female who’s got a serious argument to make, and she will reply that writing outweighs oral presentation when it comes to rebalancing the scales. We have not moved far, in that respect, from the moment when James’s Verena Tarrant, in The Bostonians, made her impassioned plea on behalf of women’s freedom, and Basil Ransom received it thus:

He had taken her measure as a public speaker, judged her importance in the field of discussion, the cause of reform. From any serious point of view it was neither worth answering nor worth considering, and Basil Ransom made his reflections on the crazy character of the age in which such a performance as that was treated as an intellectual effort, a contribution to a question. … Nevertheless, its importance was high, and consisted precisely, in part, of the fact that the voice was not the voice of Olive or of Adeline. Its importance was that Verena was unspeakably attractive.

For all the reasons suggested by James’s scene, the skills involved in crafting a written argument are particularly empowering to women whether or not, as McWhorter opines, they will become part of the “specialty” group that practices formal writing at a high level.

McWhorter uses piano players as an analogy for writers in his essay. Pianists and other musicians auditioning for orchestras these days generally sit behind a black curtain, so their sex does not affect the judgment of those listening to and assessing them. In the public realm, there is no curtain to block gender markers — the higher voice; the shorter stature; the attention to physical appearance, especially clothes, endemic to the media’s focus on women speaking in public — that have the effect of muting or shouting down women’s voices. The page remains our best curtain.

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