by Abby Brunt
The theme for this year’s literary festival at Old Dominion University is Politics and Literature. This theme also coincides with the first election in which a woman is a majority party’s nominee for president – a historic moment for sure and a win for women’s voices on the public stage. With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to look at the way women’s voices differ from men’s and to celebrate that difference, as well as acknowledge the struggles that women still face in getting heard on an equal parity with men.
A stark example of how women’s voices differ vastly from men’s can be found in comparing the poetic styles of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Though contemporaries, their voices couldn’t be more different. Consider the following example from Dickinson:
God made a little Gentian-
It tried – to be Rose –
And failed – and all the Summer laughed
But just before the Snows
Then rose a Purple Creature –
That ravished all the Hill –
And Summer hid her Forehead –
And Mockery – was still –
The Frosts were her condition –
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North – invoke it –
Creator – Shall I – bloom?
~from Fascicle Twenty-Four, Sheet Four
And this one from Walt Whitman:
Why should I pray? Why should I venerate and be ceremonious?
Having pried through the strata, analyzed to a hair, consel’d with doctors and calculated close,
I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones.
In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.
I know I am solid and sound,
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written of me, and I must get what the writing means.
~From Song of Myself, #20
Dickinson’s lines are measured, her voice subtle, playful and wry compared to Whitman’s galloping pace and commandeering declarations. The content too, is different. Dickinson is hesitant — a gentian unsure of her place is a rose’s world. Whitman thinks the universe “perpetually flows” to him. In her time, Dickinson was not well received; her subtlety perhaps did not grant her the same degree of attention as that of the louder male voice.
I wish I could say this is just a dated example of how male voices get more attention, but statistics compiled by VIDA as recently as 2010 continue to suggest a strong bias towards the male voice in publishing – both the authors who are getting reviewed and those who are doing the reviewing tend to be men — a bias that at times exceeds 75%. Often women writers feel pressured to write in a voice that imitates a loud commandeering masculine style in order to gain legitimacy in a world of publishing that still values what men have to say and how they say it more than it does a woman’s voice and take on the world.
The feminist writer, Carol Gilligan argues in her book In a Different Voice that women are conditioned by a relational view of the world and tend to have a communication style that stems from these interwoven connections. This style should not be seen as inferior or weak, but as the title suggests, is merely a different voice, and one that men would do well to respect, value and perhaps even learn from.
Men have the privilege of expecting their communication styles to be the default or correct way, and they will often be rewarded for this with publication. Recently, as I was reading Stephen Dunn’s Walking Light: Memoirs and Essays on Poetry I noticed how often he used phrases like “as we know” displaying a masculine ease with announcing his opinion as a universal understanding – a bias of which he is likely unaware. Dunn in his enthusiasm in reading a good poem declares, “It’s amazing when someone gets the world right.” Yes, it is. But my opinion of what that looks like may be different and likely styled in a different voice, too.