Shrill and waffly

Column for the Observant, Maastricht, May

‘Rhetoric for real women’, the event was called and – as both a woman and something of a talker – I’d been excited for weeks. The guest of honour was one Dr Susan Jones, a speechwriter for no fewer than three British prime ministers. On a Wednesday evening, early May, in an ornate room tucked away in a Cambridge college, female graduate students were treated to a dinner of poached quail eggs in the presence of the illustrious Dr Jones and the college provost. (What a provost does remains unclear to me; suffice it to say we’re supposed to be intimidated.) We were there to learn about ‘authentic, influential and successful speech for women today’.

The sorbet plates had barely been cleared when things took a turn for the worse. ‘We’re thrilled to have such an honoured guest with us here tonight’, said the provost. ‘Of course, I won’t actually be coming to the talk, because I’d be terrified.’

Our smiles frozen, we threw panicked looks at one another. What would our honoured guest think? And what exactly so frightened the provost? All those vaginas in the same room?

Jones seemed unperturbed. ‘Oh now, I’m sure he was just busy’, she blustered when the incident was raised during her talk. She then recounted one story after another with the following basic plot: First, man makes sexist remark. Next, Jones laughs it off – ‘It’s no big deal’ – or, alternatively, makes an excuse: ‘A man at a dinner asked me what I do and I said, I’m the speechwriter for so and so. He said, could you pass the salt? But really, I’m sure he was just thinking of what to say.’

In the audience, we thought: well, if she won’t be our feminist hero, at least she’ll have some useful tips about speech writing. Right? Wrong. ‘When women get emotional they turn shrill. And they waffle’, she said. ‘Don’t do that.’ Perpetuating age-old stereotypes and alienating your audience, however – those are fine.

Playing the men’s game and happily ignoring ‘women’s issues’ – is it really still the only way to the top?

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