Silencing the Past


Can You Hear Us Now? 

A Short History of Women's Voices for #WomensHistoryMonth

Silencing the Past

This WomensHistoryMonth, let's raise our voices (quite literally) and celebrate the incredible journey we've taken.

For centuries, women's voices were silenced or dismissed. Imagine a world where Aristotle said "Silence is a woman's glory," or Sophocles declared "Silence gives the proper grace to women."

Mythology is filled with muted nymphs and voiceless maidens. 

Mute nymphs and voiceless maidens figure prominently in Greek myths and other fables. Echo, the talkative nymph, is punished by Juno with the loss of her voice: all she's able to do is repeat other people's words.

The sirens, those half-bird and half-woman creatures in Greek mythology, lured sailors to destruction by the sweetness of their song. 

Even the ancient book of Jewish law, the Talmud, considered a woman's voice "nakedness." Talk about a silencing tactic.  Men were prohibited from reciting the Shema (a sacred Jewish prayer) while hearing a woman's voice… because it was so seductive that it might distract them with impure thoughts. Women and men were and still are separated in Orthodox temples… Orthodox women, to this day, are not permitted to sing in a room in which men are present.

St. Paul followed suit with his edict, "Let your women keep silent in the church, for they are not permitted to speak… for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church."

The female voice has been disparaged, analyzed, picked apart, and judged throughout history…

Fast forward to the 1900s, and things weren't much better. ‍ A 1906 Harper's Bazaar said of the American woman: "She sometimes spoke through her nose, she twanged, she whiffled, she snuffled, she whined, she whinnied."

The invention of radio brought new challenges. The "powers that be" deemed women's voices "inappropriate" for the airwaves. When station directors were interviewed in 1924, they asserted that women sounded "shrill," "nasal," and "distorted" on the radio, and claimed that women's higher voices created technical problems. The criticism didn't end with pitch and timbre, however: the personality, authenticity, and sense of humor of female speakers were also questioned.

With radio, in a kind of Catch 22 situation, a woman with a higher voice was considered demure and not authoritative enough for serious broadcasting. A woman with a lower or deeper voice was associated with sexuality or promiscuity.

Thankfully, WWII forced a change. With men off fighting, women stepped up to the mic. By 1941, the BBC even hired a (gasp!) female news announcer! Yet scarcely was the war over then back came the view that women were not appropriate for the radio. The belief and argument was that "women have never been able to achieve the "impersonal touch that men have" and most were replaced by men.

Cultural trends also played a role. Remember the "transatlantic accent," that posh way of speaking popular in the 40s? Women were mainly responsible, showing the unique influence they have had and continue to have on vocal trends. ‍

Fast forward again, and the 50s brought the breathy "Marilyn Monroe" voice – a mix of innocence and pure sex appeal. (Side note: Smiling actually raises your pitch!)

The feminist movement of the 70s saw a shift. Women started speaking in lower pitches, a push for equality even in vocal tone. But were we just trading one stereotype for another?

Today, vocal trends like upspeak and glottal fry are still commonly used. But why do these patterns emerge, and how do they impact us? Are we truly expressing ourselves, or conforming to new pressures?

The truth is, women have always been at the forefront of shaping vocal trends, yet often face harsher judgement for using them. Unconscious bias can lead women to be interrupted or spoken over.

But women have always found ways to make themselves heard.

Writers like Sappho and Mary Wollstonecraft defied the silence.

Suffragists like Susan B. Anthony raised their voices for equality.

Actresses like Katharine Hepburn brought strong female characters to life.

Join the conversation – what have you learned about the history of women's voices? What are your thoughts on current trends? The question remains: Can you hear us now?

This Women's History Month, let's celebrate the power of our voices. Let's also be mindful of the messages we're sending, both verbally and nonverbally. ️

What are your thoughts on the history of women's voices? Share your experiences in the comments!

P.S. Stay tuned for a future post on how to find and use your most impactful voice