By Lois Phillips, Ph.D.

August 26th is “Women’s Equality Day,” and it’s good to remember how far we’ve come. Think about the frustration that accompanied this statement from centuries gone by:

“… only by robbing woman of all her intellectual and creative resources can man protect his usurped power. He will not even let you speak . . . particularly not in public, or to other women, for the public arena, which is a source of influence and intellectual improvement, has also been monopolized by man.”

Throughout history women have had victories both small and large in the fight for full equality that led women to a range of opportunities that we enjoy today, and yet for the most part these victories have not been included in textbooks. As a result, people remain unaware of what their foremothers did to help women advance to the point where they are today: managers, leaders, and professionals in every sector of society. While politicians such as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann have recently capitalized on women’s advances and gained press attention as they advanced their ideas and candidacies, it is no small irony that these conservative Evangelical Christian women threaten to turn back the clock to an earlier time, preferring to see women—other than themselves, of course — lose legal rights such as Reproductive Choice.

The pressure to conform to conventional roles runs deep, having its roots in ancient times and the belief that women were intellectually inferior to men. During the Middle Ages and later in Colonial America women who spoke in public and displayed assertive traits were seen as masculine and inappropriately aggressive. They were called lepers, said to be both sexually deviant and consorting with the devil.

“Hysterics, bitches, scolds, fishwives, harpies and magpies” were words used to describe women who challenged the church’s authority. But even in private conversation, women who were thought to talk too much were forced to wear a “scold’s bridle” which pierced their tongue with a nail if they spoke. Now we admonish people to think before they speak or to “Bite your tongue.”

The tone of women’s voices was unfairly pointed out as sounding shrill, whiny, nagging and harping—descriptions of women’s supposedly irrational and overly emotional nature. This attitude is perpetuated even in the 21st century when hostile language is used to describe assertive women’s speech, particularly when they are seeking top positions. A man will be described as strong and determined in how he expresses himself, while women leaders are described as having an edge. A man can be detached while a woman with the same affect is described this way: it “rhymes with witch.” When candidates have been called “Ice Queen” and “mean girl” their voter approval rating drops, so let us be clear that sexist name-calling is no laughing matter. Understanding the extreme hardship women faced throughout history can inspire today’s women to combat the double standard at the podium.

Anxiety about speaking in public is common to women and men, but perhaps women sense that speaking in public is dangerous; history (or “herstory”) has shown us that asserting one’s beliefs, ideas, and opinions is an act that can lead social isolation, excommunication, and perhaps even death. Many women are understandably reticent to argue and debate controversial issues for these reasons and others. For those willing to persevere in standing up for their opinions, our American foremothers provide heroic role models.

Women are 51% of the population but still only 10% of our Congress in spite of the fact that they are better educated than ever, engaged, informed, and involved. To move forward as full partners with men, today’s women leaders would do well to remember that it is possible to advocate for change. After all, women today stand on the shoulders of brilliant and courageous women who achieved radical reforms from speaking up and remaining tenacious. From this vantage point, women leaders can see a future full of political and economic possibilities that their foremothers could not even imagine. In order to honor the history of women as speakers, women leaders need to look ahead and not look back, sending a progressive message about women’s status in every debate, discussion, and press interview.

NOTE: To read and purchase the complete essay, go to
“History of Women Speakers: When Women Spoke up, They Changed History” by Lois Phillips, PhD, August 2011.
1- Abstract/Executive Summary of “The History of Women as Speakers: When Women Spoke Up, They Changed History”
2- Thompson, William, Appeal from One Half the Human Race (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown & Green, 1835). This is excerpted from Dale Spender, Women of Ideas: And What Men Have Done to Them (London: Pandora Press, 1988): 394
3-Janet Stone and Jane Bachner Speaking Up (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1977): 4.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *