Speak, Woman!

Oprah. Hillary Clinton. The late Bella Abzug. Amal Clooney. Renée Fleming. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Camille Paglia. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. What do all of these women have in common? If you answered that they are all celebrities and at the top of their fields, that would be correct. But there is something more important I would like to point out: they are all excellent speakers.

Women are often accused, sometimes in very misogynistic ways, of talking a lot. There is, however, much evidence from neuroscience and linguistics that shows this is true. Linguist Deborah Tannen has done a great deal of research on gender and communication, and UCSF neuropsychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine’s well-known books on the male and female brains have highlighted both the similarities and differences in our common organ, but asserted that women do talk more (though other academic studies have proved her wrong). Women are encouraged to talk a lot, to emote, use language for expressing our feelings. Many of us enjoy “girl chats,” gabfests where we can let it all hang out, sending each other funny texts, etc.

But what if we also encourage women to learn to speak well, to communicate effectively about the things they want, and not only emotional release? What if we emphasize the need to express ideas with clarity, articulate concepts in our field with precision, and help women to understand that this is a source of power? Regardless of popular opinion (which generally seems to agree that women talk more), we have to recognize that anyone who speaks well in public and in the workplace has a distinct advantage. I am in no way advocating that women need to talk like men or act like men, for I find that this has been a huge error on the part of the feminist movement and this forced a lot of women in the 80s to adopt a “power stance” and a large-scale denial of the feminine aspects of ourselves. But speaking well is not incompatible with femininity. Look at the list of women above: no one would accuse them of rejecting their womanhood. If anything, their ability to articulate themselves makes them stand out more as a woman, for they are not just beautiful and well groomed, but they have something to say and can say it well. Public speaking and effective speaking enhances a woman’s attractiveness; being able to include facts when you are trying to make a case for something makes you even more powerful and credible.

Parents need to persuade their daughters to harness the power of words, not post ridiculous images on Instagram or Snapchat. Teachers in the classroom need to ensure that they attempt to give equal airtime to women and girls, though sometimes females hesitate to speak up in class, as I saw when teaching at a college this past semester. Our society needs to create a culture in which young women, even if shy or introverted, see that it is a source of strength to use the power of words. We don’t need the talk show model of spilling one’s guts; what we need is to exalt role models who feel confident in saying what they need to say. Never underestimate the importance of public speaking.

Watch any occasion Ruth Bader Ginsburg is speaking. You will never see anyone who chooses her words more carefully, even as an octogenarian. Bella Abzug was known for being quite vocal–“I was born yelling!”–but watch an interview on PBS from the 80s, and you will see that she is incredibly sharp and can back up her assertions with facts. Oprah became the queen of emotion on talk shows, but she also had a sense of purpose and her feeling was matched with tremendous perception and intellect. The soft-spoken Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who by all accounts was introverted and shy, still had a core of steel and knew how to conduct herself beautifully in public, very aware of what she was saying and the manner in which she was saying it. Motormouth Camille Paglia talks a mile a minute, but it is because she is a walking encyclopedia and has so much to say as a scholar and writer. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex is unfailingly and incredibly articulate, gracious and womanly, but never afraid to speak her mind, especially when it comes to social injustice–something that was perhaps quite threatening to British society.

These are only a handful of role models and the only ones I can cite to readers as common references, given their celebrity. But think of the women we know in our own lives who are effective communicators and know what they are saying. We can find much to admire in many people in our daily lives, be it an Ivy League professor or a hardware store manager. We still have a long way to go with equality in American society; speaking effectively can help us on that journey.

The Lost Art of Penmanship and Letter Writing

Our digital age has nearly robbed us of one of the most fundamental cognitive-physiological impulses: writing by hand. Nothing compares to the pleasure of putting pen or pencil to paper, the feel of the ink gliding across the surface, the way in which we control the strokes thick and thin. What a beautiful phenomenon: thoughts materialize into something as concrete as words on the page!

Being able to write, however, is a privilege that most of us in the modern, industrial world take for granted. Even in the West, people were not largely literate until recent centuries. And for those who were, paper was still rather a luxury. For those who were able to afford it, there was the choice of the type of paper or material upon which one could write, such as skins, parchment, and then different types of stationery. There are certain parts of the world in which paper and papermaking are still an art. Think of the beautiful swirling patterns of Florentine paper, or the delicate, colorful ones of Japanese origami paper.

There is also the matter of handwriting. I’m rather alarmed to learn that many students are not learning cursive in schools anymore. Before our current age of texting, kids used to delight in writing notes to each other and slipping them to each other during class or in each other’s lockers. Making cards was great fun. Having pen pals, getting to choose the stationery and the colors of ink and the types of pens or markers and stickers were also things every kid looked forward to. But this wasn’t simply all childish entertainment: this was helping us develop our motor skills and visual-spatial abilities. I recall getting a set of calligraphy pens that came with the little booklet on how to write the alphabet in calligraphy, which I believe is a dying art. Spending quiet time learning how to write in calligraphy was as instructive as it was artistic. The Duchess of Sussex, formerly Meghan Markle, supported herself while an auditioning actress by doing calligraphy for invitations. Perhaps for some this might bring back horrifying memories of being graded poorly for “penmanship,” but I have to say there is something to being able to write legibly, if not beautifully.

None of this is a modern phenomenon. Humans have been writing, however crudely, by pressing shapes into clay tablets, then on papyrus, and then on roughly made paper. Islamic culture places a high value on the written word and therefore we can see many examples of beautiful calligraphy that is centuries old. Not to mention all the illuminated manuscripts from medieval times. One genre of writing is called the “epistolary novel,” which is a novel in letters. I think this appeals to our surreptitious delight in reading what somebody else has written, the furtive sense of snooping. Examples include the medieval correspondence between nun Héloïse and monkish scholar Abélard, and Samuel Richardson’s (dare I say) tedious Pamela. In the 90s, the brilliant artist Nick Bantock created a stunning series of “Griffin and Sabine” books that illustrated a correspondence between a man and woman, complete with colorful letters and cards that were works of art that the reader would draw out of an envelope mounted on the page. This continued into another series by Bantock known as “The Morning Star Trilogy” and then another book that filled in the time between the two trilogies. This is one of the best examples of a modern epistolary novel, and one that engages multiple senses.

I believe we need to write more letters and cards. To get away from the two-dimensional, black-and-white, non-curving nature of our digital writing. Write thank you notes by hand; send your friends a letter. They might thank you for it, and you will also be continuing the wonderful historical act of writing by hand and epistolary communication.