At the televised Democratic presidential primary debate on Thursday, three voices will issue from the Houston stage to convince voters that the next president of the United States can do something no one in the history of the office has ever done: sound like a woman.
If this doesn’t seem revolutionary, it should. Remember the continuous spray of adjectives, metaphors and punditry applied to the subject of Hillary Clinton’s voice? Glenn Beck likened it to an “ice pick” in the ear. “Shrill” was another popular choice, along with the implication: Imagine listening to that for four years! Meanwhile, the voices of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Donald Trump, battered and nasal, skated past unnoticed.
“No advanced step taken by women has been so bitterly contested as that of speaking in public,” Susan B. Anthony said late in her life. “For nothing which they have attempted, not even to secure the suffrage, have they been so abused, condemned and antagonized.” At the time, Anthony thought women had won that battle, leaving them free to move on to other frontiers. She was wrong. In the United States, only male politicians have been granted license to call down the thunder, to sound their voices like gongs, to bang on lecterns, to pause between phrases long enough to bake a soufflé. Gravitas has been their dominion.
Women have been given a famously narrow road to walk. Step to one side, and they are strident, hysterical, grating. Step to the other, and they are uninvested, passionless robots.
Until quite recently, a woman who found herself in the political arena probably got there in part by cultivating a speaking style that was carefully modulated and painstakingly pruned of any potentially controversial spikes of emotion or forays into the edges of dynamic range that could be coded as hysterical, angry or out of control. But the 2016 election changed everything. Clinton chose the path of nearly ascetic discipline — a time-tested route for women — that extended to her personal demeanor and speaking style on the campaign trail. Unfortunately for her, the choice meant her matchup against Trump left her sounding grimly calculated and inauthentic to critics. Clinton herself has regrets. In her memoir “What Happened,” she wrote: “Maybe I have overlearned the lesson of staying calm, biting my tongue, digging my fingernails into a clenched fist. Smiling all the while, determined to present a composed face to the world.” By contrast, Trump’s damn-the-teleprompters brand of public speaking looked like the real deal to voters. Nobody dwelled on the quality of his voice for long.
In my work as a voice and story coach, time and time again women ask me if they are “too much.” If they are gesturing too much with their hands, inflecting into too high a register, sharing a story that demands too much emotion in the telling. They have reason to be cautious. Women have worked hard to be taken seriously, they have fought against what Anthony called “the prejudice of the ages,” and they don’t want to throw away their shot for a quaver in the voice or a few extra decibels. Women, among themselves, have long suspected that achieving power still doesn’t grant them license to speak. It turns out they’re right. In a study from Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, researchers Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers wondered whether women who had achieved high status would be given immunity from interruptions. So they looked to one indisputable seat of power: the U.S. Supreme Court. Jacobi and Schweers analyzed years of oral arguments to reveal that female justices were interrupted roughly three times as often as male justices. In another study, at Yale, Victoria L. Brescoll asked study respondents to rate hypothetical male and female chief executives who spoke up more or less often than did other chief executives. When men spoke up, their competency rating went up significantly. When women did the same, theirs sank significantly. This is why women, by and large, have decided to play it safe when it comes to their speaking style and the daily choice of whether to speak. I coach women that to fully inhabit the voice is to learn to speak when the moment demands it, to learn how to use the physical instrument itself, and to learn to value the voice as an authentic expression of the self.
The 2016 election sent women a message: Playing it safe doesn’t always work. Even if you tone it down, you can still get knocked out of the game. And even when it worked, women who deliberately smudged their personalities and tamped down their voices to play it safe often found the resulting fit an uncomfortable one, largely because it’s hard to fully exercise your power when you feel compelled to sound like someone you’re not. Sounding a similar note, one woman I coached told me about her career in bank regulation in the wake of the last financial crisis. She remembered the day she chose to stay silent in the face of blatant workplace sexism and told me today she would definitely call them out on it. She is now planning a run for office.
In 2020, women running for president have learned from Clinton’s overabundance of caution. They are testing the fences on the allowable quota of authentic personal expression and, when the situation allows, granting themselves the luxury of emoting while female.
When she took on former vice president Joe Biden over the issue of busing, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) displayed a complex array of emotions as she told the story of a child bused in as part of the second class to integrate her public school. She showed the viewing public anger, passion and pain. As she spoke, Harris’s head bobbed for emphasis and her voice crescendoed and seemed to shake when she hit the line, “That child was me,” and turned to look Biden square in the eye. And Harris has company. The entire being of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) regularly seems to vibrate with feeling, whether she’s correcting a crowd for laughing at the wrong moment or recalling her childhood tribulations. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is a bit hamstrung by allegations that she can’t control her anger and mistreats her staff. It may be a strategic move to keep her demeanor temperate for the time being, although she is working to brand herself as a candidate of grit. But Warren and Harris both risk a level of expression on the national stage that’s unprecedented for female presidential candidates.
These women aren’t alone. Just as the dry, flinty delivery of Ira Glass, projected proudly through the nose, busted open the tightly nailed box of what a public radio voice should sound like more than two decades ago, voices such as that of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), with her sometimes explosive cadences, and former first lady Michelle Obama’s deeply felt expression of self, plainly audible in the voice, are changing our ideas about how women in the public sphere are allowed to sound, particularly in terms of emotional and dynamic range.
But the 2020 race is young, and the ultimate sparring partner for women in the Democratic field is Trump. His rhetoric is driven by sharp contrasts, a style that seems likely to collide with gender politics as the race progresses. And these women may still collide with a ceiling when it comes to just how much and how loudly voters will allow a woman to speak. They may discover a cap on women’s anger or a moment when their passion exceeds the allotted limit. The territory is uncharted. But there is only one way to test the boundaries in today’s authenticity-starved marketplace: keep pressing. Even if they lose the race, they gain ground for women’s voices and may have within their grasp the collective capacity to change perceptions. If, during this campaign season, we can learn to challenge our assumptions about what power sounds like, we can at last really hear what’s being said.