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Twice their Natural Size

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

I was at a dinner recently for an organization that does important work in the arena of climate change and energy policy.  In the middle of a conversation I was having with the woman who edits their main publication, a man  came over to interrupt; for the next twenty minutes, the editor and I suspended our conversation while he chatted wittily about his sailing experiences.  (We did keep trying to return to the subject, an article I was trying to edit for her, but the strength of our lungs wasn’t up to outblasting the sails.) At dinner, my neighbor–a different man– brought me up-to-date on his life history, including his different career moves, and the difficulty he’d had in finding dogwalkers when he first moved to Chicago.

Studies of women and men in conversation show over and over that women use about a third of conversational time; men two-thirds, whether in work or in social situations.  Women who speak more than that are perceived as selfish, as conversation hogs, and the meeting or dinner party moves to isolate them. Films reflect this: women have not quite thirty percent of the speaking lines, and only one woman is usually allowed to speak in a scene, whereas many men may speak in the same scene. (why I like NCIS–Abby and Ziva both get to be on screen and speaking!)

At the dinner, I didn’t want to violate my time limit, but I did think maybe I could have thirty percent of the speaking time, not zero.  It did make me wonder what has changed in the last century, ever since Virginia Woolf wrote:

“Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting men at twice their natural sizes.” Without that power, “probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle.  The glories of all our wars would be unknown.”

Woolf adds that Mussolini and other tyrants insisted on the inferiority of women because if we “were not inferior, we would cease to enlarge” men.  Perhaps that is why it is so important to Justices Scalia, Roberts, Alito and Thomas that women be denied equal protection under the laws, but I must say, the dinner deepened my sense of depression over women’s estate.

For another take on the subject, look at Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg‘s recent commencement address to the women of Barnard.




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