I was reading aloud to my helpmeet a piece from a recent issue of the London Review of Books, a bit of social commentary titled "The Public Voice of Women," in which the authoress makes a cogent case that women have been historically silenced, in the Western tradition, in ways that are subtle or (more often) not so subtle. It all started when Homer had Penelope descend from her loom to the hall where the suitors were gathered, intent on showing them the door, whereupon her stripling son, Telemachus, sent her back to her weaving with clear instructions to leave household affairs, specifically mantalk, to him.
The premise of the piece is an old cartoon from the British satirical magazine, Punch, in which several men and a single woman are gathered about a conference table in a boardroom, the chairman saying, "That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.’"
The argument is about 'voice' in both its accepted uses. In the first place, "public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women
didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined
masculinity as a gender." And secondly, "in speaking out, what are women said to be? ‘Strident’; they ‘whinge’ and they ‘whine’." Other accusations come to mind as well - hormonal, menopausal, or (in stranger worlds like the one Rush Limbaugh inhabits) even a decayed virtue.
By contrast, consider "the ‘deep-voiced’ man with all the connotations of profundity
that the simple word ‘deep’ brings. It is still the case that when
listeners hear a female voice, they don’t hear a voice that connotes
authority. . . ." It was this second point I fastened on, the part about the voice as sound. I remembered the mellifluous, deep voices of an older generation of newscasters, voices like those of, say, Edward R. Murrow, or Walter Cronkite or Eric Sevareid, the old stable of CBS broadcasters. The clear enunciation of Howard K. Smith, the dignified modulations of Huntley and Brinkley. When they spoke, the sounds they made lent credibility to everything they said.
Consider the current crop of announcers - take the lot on NPR, for example (many of whose names I don't know because I only hear the radio if I happen to walk through one of the rooms in the chateau) - I much prefer the sounds of the women's voices to those of the men. Lakshmi Singh, for example, could say that the Republicans had come up with a workable single payer mandated universal healthcare plan, or that the President had levied a fair tax on every U.S. corporation, and I'd believe her just because she'd said it . . . you know, in that voice of hers.
I said as much to my wife, who promptly wondered what it was about the male voices in the broadcast trade. Well, I answered (in so many words), they all sound so effeminate. Think about what you just said, she shot back. I took her point - I couldn't in fairness say that I liked Lakshmi Singh's voice because it's manly. But she doesn't mince and take on mannerisms and wheeze - in short, she renders the feminine voice pleasant as well as authoritative.
No, take a guy like Scott Simon, I thought. Thin, the tone a bit wheezy, overly mannered. Enunciation a little precious, the general timbre of the voice not inviting extended exposure. And the males on the local NPR affiliate either lightly mince through their scripts about which-nonprofit-with-website-just-funded-the-following-program, or they talk as though they had just taken a mouthful of wet dough.
Generally, if a woman speaks like a woman and not a Valley girl, as admittedly many of them do, I can listen to her for hours. But when most of the men speak I want to take one of those wrapped sets of balsa wood restaurant chopsticks and poke them in the side of the head until they desist and leave the microphone. Which, I suppose is evidence enough that I could never own a radio. Or a gun - I wouldn't know what to do with it, nor would I if I did.