The Daughters of England by Sarah Stickney Ellis is a mid-19th century text providing guidance on young women’s character and behaviour. Ellis published several other popular works on women’s roles, including The Women of England, and in each she outlines that women must provide a good influence on men – as wives, mothers, and daughters – as part of their contribution to society.
Whether you are rich, or poor, an orphan, or the child of watchful parents – one of a numerous family, or comparatively alone – filling an important or an humble position – of highly-gifted mind, or otherwise – all these points must be clearly established before you can properly understand the kind of duty required of you.
How these questions might be answered, is of no importance to the writer in the present stage of this work. The importance of their being clearly and faithfully answered to yourselves, is all she would insist on. For my own purpose, it is not necessary to go further into your particular history or circumstances, than to regard you as women, and, as I hope, Christian women. As Christian women, then I address you. This is placing you on high ground; yet surely there are few of my young countrywomen who would be willing to take lower ground.
As women, then, the first thing of importance is to be content to be inferior to men – inferior in mental power, in the same proportion that you are inferior in bodily strength. Ease of movement, aptitude, and grace, the bodily frame of woman may possess in a higher degree than that of man, just as in the softer touches of mental and spiritual beauty, her character may present a lovelier appearance than his.
Yet, as the great attribute of power must still be missing, it is immediately her business to inquire how this deficiency may be supplied. An able and eloquent writer on “Woman’s Mission”, has accurately observed, that woman’s strength is in her influence. And, in order to render this influence more complete, you will find, on examination, that you are by nature endowed with particular talents – with a quickness of perception, ability to adapt, and sensitivity of feeling, which fit you especially for the part you have to act in life; and which, at the same time, make you, in a higher degree than men, vulnerable to both pain and pleasure…
My big voice was frowned upon when I was a girl in the 70s. Now, celebrities from Beyoncé to Michelle Obama are helping to tear up the idea of what a woman should sound like, writes Guardian journalist Viv Groskop.
No one wants to sit next to a loud woman. I know this because someone recently moved the placement card on a dinner table to get away from me. That label – “loud woman” – has never been a compliment, even though some of us may wear it as a badge of honour. Picture a loud woman and she is in Technicolor, with the sound turned up past 11, looking like she is stuck in the 80s: big hair, massive gob, voice like a foghorn, part witch, part harridan, part pub landlady. You definitely don’t want to sit next to her when she has a drink inside her.
What a loud woman looks like, though, has changed hugely in the past two decades. With Michelle Obama publishing her autobiography, Becoming, next week, it is clear that a new generation of women want to redefine the term. As the former first lady puts it: “I admit it: I am louder than the average human being and I have no fear of speaking my mind. These traits don’t come from the colour of my skin, but from an unwavering belief in my own intelligence.” If you ask women whom they would most like to be as a public speaker, many will say Obama. Her speaking style – controlled passion, warm authority, approachable charisma – is extremely attractive. She is the new kind of loud: the volume is calculated and in tune with the audience.
At the recent People’s Vote march in London, at least half of the speakers were women, many of them under 30. They were all impressively accomplished orators, able to play to a crowd of thousands and to the camera at the same time (they were being filmed, so that the video could be relayed). Watching them and soaking up their confidence, it occurred to me that what was impressive was that none of them could be dismissed as loud women. Yet their impact, no matter what your politics, was striking. Their styles were as varied as those of the male speakers. This variation and experimentation among female leaders is something we are only starting to see.
Just as the past few years have seen a rise in the body-positive movement and an understanding of the expression “fat shaming” and the extent to which those ideas have been internalised, I wonder if the “loud shaming” of women is finally being recognised. Samuel Johnson’s horrible quote about women and public performance is more than a century old: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” When I was a child in the 70s, it was common for me to be told to be quiet and stop showing off – at home, at school, by adults of all kinds. It was not until I was much older that I realised I was not being loud or showing off – I was just talking. This is not necessarily a woman thing; it is only in the past few decades that children have been allowed to be as noisy as they want.
Whatever this means is important. Because I think we are redefining what it means to be loud. We are starting to understand that you are not obliged to be loud just because someone has told you not to be. My grandmother was a great role model for me when I was growing up. She could be loud. She ran a corner shop with a rod of iron, spoke her mind, laughed raucously and did not suffer fools gladly. But she also agreed with the old saying: “Empty vessels* make the most sound.” Modern feminism has to hit a happy medium between these extremes. Don’t make noise for the sake of it, but don’t shut up either. There is a lot of experimentation to be done in the space between those options. As for the person avoiding me at dinner? Maybe I was just wearing too much perfume.
* vessels = containers