7 Bizarre Historical Beliefs About Women's Voices
Throughout this election season, a lot of attention has been given to intimate female experiences — but that doesn't mean the 2016 election hasn't also been a thoroughly harrowing time for women. There have been a vast number of sexist moments throughout this election cycle, some of which have dealt with the issue of women's voices — especially the idea of "shrill" voices (like Hillary Clinton's, supposedly). Though the critiques of Clinton's voice have been indisputably sexist, Clinton can at least take comfort in the fact that, when misogynist commentators describe her voice as "hectoring" or mock her diction, they're just playing into a centuries-old set of beliefs about how women's voices are dangerous, powerful, devilish and potentially murderous. (Now that would have made for an interesting presidential debate series.)
Interestingly, the idea that women should be "seen and not heard," which has been prominent across many historical societies, doesn't derive from the concept that they're inherently a meeker, quieter gender by nature. Rather, it usually springs from the other end of the spectrum entirely: women's voices are often historically regarded as weirdly unstoppable, capable of driving men mad, and were possibly even created by the devil himself — and for that reason, they constantly need to be managed and stoppered. How's that for an incentive to vote on November 8?
If you've ever been called "mouthy," silenced because you're a woman, or felt that your voice did't carry the same weight with others purely by dint of your gender, get into this: a set of historical beliefs about women's vocals that make them some of the most transgressive, powerful things in the world. Fitting.
Women's Voices Can Kill Infants
The idea of women's voices as inherently dangerous is actually pretty ancient: the most prominent example, of course, is the Sirens of Greek myth — three creatures with female faces and birdlike bodies who lured men to their island with their hypnotic song, and then either killed them or left them to drown on the rocks (according to different versions of the myth).
However, during the medieval period, the idea of women's voices being dangerous became a legal issue: women accused of witchcraft were often charged with verbally cursing other people or their livestock, doing things like "saying the pater noster backwards." Historian Dr. Sheila Sweetinburgh calls this a pretty clear manifestation of fears about "the unruly female tongue," which could cause massive trouble.
But it wasn't just cursing that could get women into trouble; giving compliments was regarded as highly suspect, as well. Roman writer Pliny the Elder, in his Natural Histories, records various writers vouching for the existence of witches and sorcerers who, "if they chance to bless, praise, and speak good words, bewitch presently withall: insomuch as sheep therewith die, trees wither, and infants pine and wither away."
Women's Singing Guides The Dead To The Afterlife
This is one of the more eerie and powerful beliefs about female voices in particular contexts, and we find it present across several societies. In early ancient Greece, women had a specific role in funerals: they sang. They could be members of the deceased's family, or praeficiae, women hired for the purpose; but it was their job to sing the naeniae — the funeral songs that honored the dead and completed the ceremony. They would sing and loudly lament in funerary processions that accompanied the body to the grave, and were considered a hugely important part of the proceedings. It's a belief that has its own manifestation in traditional Chinese culture, as well, where the women of a house — including daughters and daughters-in-law — are expected to sing specific songs to help a spirit after it passes away: a "pavilion" song to help the spirit relax on its way, an "open door" song to direct it to the correct parts of the netherworld, and so on.
Interestingly, the Greek ritual of women singing evolved over time into something else: the funerary oration, which was usually given by men. Gail Horst-Warhaft, in Dangerous Voices , points out that the laws passed in Greece from the 6th century BC onwards were actually meant to restrict women's mourning, because they were likely becoming too powerful in their control of funerals — female singing was seen as so powerful, it was threatening.
It's Sinful For Women To Speak In Holy Places
This is one of the most famous laws about women's voices in history: in the Bible, Paul's letter to the Corinthians includes an injunction that women are in no way allowed to speak in church, and if they have questions, they should wait until afterwards:
"In all the churches of the sanctified let women keep silent, for it is not entrusted to them to speak aloud. But let them be kept in line, as the law states. If they want to learn anything let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is shameful for a woman to talk aloud in church."
This actually continues to be debated as part of effective practice in Christian churches, and the idea of whether women can actually preach effectively or give readings is still a contentious issue, particularly in the Catholic tradition.
Women's Voices Are The Sound Of The Devil's Farting
No, really. A lot of medieval Christian beliefs about women's speech were rooted in the idea that it was women talking that got everybody into trouble in the first place — by advising Adam to eat the apple in the Garden of Eden while under the sway of the devil. "Women's voices," the historian Barbara Goodman explains, "were perceived as representative of the sins which the mouth could effuse: minor sins such as scolding and illicit speech, as well as the major ones, such as heresy itself, were perceived as coming more often than not from a woman's mouth." Old women were particularly targeted; twelfth-century religious thinkers said that old women were innately more wicked (usually because they weren't menstruating any more), and were "the devil's mouth just as preachers are God's mouth".
A French medieval tale takes this to a full extreme: it alleges that the devil, when completing the creation of women, farted on her tongue, meaning that all women's speech is just demon-farts. (It's a wonder Donald Trump didn't bring up that theory in a presidential debate, really.)
The Only Way To Ensure That Women Are Silent Is To Cut Off Their Heads
Throughout much of European history, one of the most frequently recurring notions about women was that it was virtually impossible for them to be silent; that it was their nature to talk as much as possible. A treatise on the folklore of women from 1906 finds copious examples of (half-joking) songs, rhymes and even pub signs that testify to the widely-held belief that the only silent woman guaranteed to stay silent is one whose head has been removed, usually by a frustrated man (even if the woman was a Christian martyr). It was apparently the source of a Dutch proverb that "a good woman goes without a head."
J. Howard Bloch, in Medieval Misogyny And The Invention Of Western Romantic Love, traces this idea of women's voices as basically completely unstoppable back to the Romans and Greeks: the Roman poet Juvenal once commented that the "sea of a wife's words," comparable to "a cacophony of cauldrons and bells," couldn't let even the most skilled lawyer get a word in edgewise, while the 19th century criminologist Cesare Lombroso claimed it was in their genes —because female dogs bark more than males. Congratulations, you're talkative because of bitches.
Singing Female Spirits Will Lure You To Your Death (And Possibly Tickle You)
If you've ever listened to any folktales in your life, you'll know that following a female voice in a dark wood — even if it seems like a gentle one — is a bad idea. There's a particularly hilarious manifestation of this in Russian folk belief: the rusalki , ghosts of stillborn girls or drowned women living underwater, who would attract people to them with their beauty and singing in remote forests and lakes, and then either drown them or tickle them to death. Rusalki were, in some regions, meant to have been "boiled by the devil," which accounted for their prodigious verbal charms.
Whistling Women Will Summon Evil
It wasn't just believed that women could cause evil by singing or talking; it was believed that their voices, in any context at all, could cause problems. A 19th century collection of folklore across England has an astonishing section devoted to tales of women whistling: the musical act apparently made the Virgin Mary cry, prompted girls to grow mustaches, and was somehow tied to a woman who whistled while Christ was on the cross. One of the oldest manifestations of this belief is the link between "a whistling woman and a crowing hen," which first appeared in print in 1721 but was likely much older: "A whistling woman and a crowing hen are neither fit for God nor men." (There's another variation: "will bring the Old One from his den", meaning that they'll literally summon the devil.) The issue? Whistling was meant to be a male practice, confined to the lower class; women who deigned to do it were betraying their gender and also being completely shocking. BRB learning to whistle.