by Molly Borowitz
I have a long-held theory, to which many of my female and gay-male friends have been subjected, that college women lower the pitch of their voices when speaking in situations where they want to present themselves as authoritative.
Obviously all voices are not created equal. Some of us have lower speaking voices than others. I remember being told as a tween—probably at eleven or twelve—that it was okay to have a low voice. After one of my teachers mistook me for a male classmate over the phone, my mom reassured me that lots of women are altos, like my aunt and grandmother (to the point that they sometimes get reported in department-store dressing rooms—no, I am not kidding: twice, someone has called store security to say there's a man in the ladies' dressing room), and that it doesn't matter at all.
However, it wasn't until my sophomore year of college, when I started working regularly at the
Last year, when I finally got around to taking voice lessons, my teacher immediately criticized the way I spoke. "You need to raise your pitch," he said. "When you talk that low in your range, you make yourself hoarse." I was confused. That's just how I'd always talked, I told him—my speaking voice happened to sit really low. "No," he said. "Your voice is a lot higher than that; you're just talking at the bottom of it." Given that I wanted neither to develop vocal nodules nor to waste my $600 a semester, I started working on "raising my pitch."
And thus sensitized to where women speak in their ranges, I realized that in class, all the girls spoke at the bottom of their ranges. For some people it was more pronounced: in one of my 300-level complit seminars, there was a senior who quite literally went into vocal fry (that funny buzzing sound you make when your voice bottoms out) at the end of every sentence. By contrast, another senior—an actress now at
By the end of the semester, I was convinced, so I took the question to my feminist public. All of my female friends—including several singers—completely agreed. One friend, a religion major who's taken many upper-level courses, said that she had experienced the phenomenon most particularly in one of her graduate seminars, in which she was the only woman and the only undergrad. Most girls agreed that they only spoke that low in class or when they were in positions of authority—running a rehearsal, tutoring another student, giving a tour—and that in fact the opposite was true when they were trying to ingratiate themselves with authority figures (I experienced this phenomenon myself earlier this fall when, late for a class in Firestone, I realized I had forgotten my prox and found myself petitioning the security guard in a sweet soprano, rather than my usual voluble alto). The experience was universal, but so was our unawareness of it; none of my female friends, before this conversation, had had any conscious idea that they were lowering their voices to lend authority to their ideas.
I also took the theory to my mother (a speech pathologist) for verification, but was surprised to hear that the women she works with do not lower their pitch when talking to coworkers, patients, or parents. My mom works in a hospital; she interfaces regularly with lots of men, many of whom have graduate degrees and incredibly specialized bodies of knowledge. She works with surgeons (which, I've been told, are still kind of the "boys' club" of medicine), with general pediatricians, with occupational therapists and nurses. Yet she and her female coworkers, even when they have to assert authority over or advance conflicting opinions to these people, do not feel the need to lower their voices to do so. They don't need to sound like men; being confident in their knowledge is just as valid.
Now, my mom and her colleagues are only one example; I don't know what happens in finance, academia, public policy, law, or any of the other various fields that women are slowly but steadily conquering. But it's clear that at least in the college classroom, women think they have to sound more like boys in order to be respected. I think this phenomenon persists more because of our fears (doesn't sounding "like a girl" mean sounding ditzy, silly, unintelligent?) and less because of our audiences' attitudes. If you're making a valid academic observation, your professor isn't going to disregard it just because your vocal chords vibrated above a certain frequency.
So this week, ladies, I challenge you to speak up! Think about keeping that pitch up when you talk to professors, expound on your ideas in precept, meet with advisers, tutor students, run rehearsals, give tours, or do anything else authoritative. For one thing, your voice will thank you; for another, the people around you will respect your opinions just as much—maybe all the more because you're confident enough to utter them without changing a thing about yourself.