The fascinating history behind the damaging stereotype.
Women have long been painted as the overtalkative and gossipy sex. Just consider the vast number of proverbs about women’s tongues (“A woman’s tongue wags like a lamb’s tail, never still,” and “Many women, many words”). Or the fact that we seem to need a doll called Chatty Cathy, but lack a doll like Conversant Ken. Perhaps Barbie would have found him much less attractive if he tried to be more than just a macho sidekick.
But a quiet Ken is no surprise. Literature and popular culture tell us to expect strong silent types to be named Tom, rather than Tiffany. And that boys settle things with fists rather than tongues, while girls use language as a weapon to take down other girls, the linguistic equivalent of speech samurais.
But where did this pervasive ideology about the speaking styles of men, women, girls, and boys come from? And why is it persevere despite research that suggests this depiction of women’s talk is far from accurate?
Well, as my students would say, because reasons. And, it turns out, a long history of ideological priming. So, why not go back to the beginning?
The idle chatter of women and the important talk of men
The association of women with idle and potentially even dangerous talk stretches back as far as early Greek and Roman philosophers, whose writings often valorized men and decried the comparative weaknesses of women. In History of Animals, for instance, Aristotle suggests women speak falsely and are more apt toward complaining.
The temptation here to draw a comparison to the modern ways of women may be hard to resist, but, please do. This impulse is just an example of how deeply entrenched the myths surrounding women’s talk are.
It has long been held that women’s voices did not belong in public spheres. Writing in antiquity, Greek essayist Plutarch suggested that a famed statue of Aphrodite’s tortoise served to illustrate that a woman’s primary role was in the home and to keep silent when outside of it. Impressive as it is that he could get all that from a statue of a tortoise, he was far from alone in this widespread belief that public speaking should be the domain of men in the ancient world.
As linguist Jennifer Coates discusses in her book Women, Men and Language, women were heralded as moral and virtuous, and those adhering to dominant social structure valued. Virtuous women, according to Aristotle, should not be involved in public affairs.
Those who disrupt the social order (by talking out of turn or on subjects outside the domestic realm) were viewed with contempt and defined as acting outside the confines of femininity. For example, Roman Consul Cato the Elder chastised matrons who had the gall to address other women’s husbands with their concerns. In other words, bother your own husbands, but please don’t bother anybody else’s.
Women’s talk through the Middle Ages
This tradition of treating women’s public talk as untrustworthy and morally questionable continued in religious texts in the 12th and 13th centuries, where clerical writings warned of the danger of women’s false tongues. Indeed, the term old wives’ tale dates back to early warnings of women’s tendency to tell immoral false tales.
Fast forward a century or two and we begin to see the very real consequences that face women’s voices in domains outside the domestic. In a book examining the intersection of public talk, gender, and class during the medieval period, Sandra Bardsley explores how, after the Black Death, opportunities for the peasant class grew as the massive death toll in Europe created an economic and social void.
But this gain in status also engendered increasing political unrest as the lower classes began to raise their voices against the highly inequitable system of local governance and taxation. Women who gave voice to concerns and aired grievances in semi-public spheres such as the market or spinning circles became viewed as potentially disruptive to the social order.