Twice their Natural Size

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.


  • Stine

    Well put. Here in Denmark, where I live (therefore please excuse my school english), female politicians are called all sorts of things, if/when they talk passionatly about topics, even from  male colleagues. It is extremely frustrating to read about hysteric women, but enthusiastic men!

  • Anonymous

    The recent sex discrimination ruling in favor of WalMart by the U.S. Supreme Court brought the whole sexist situation back to me. Women today continue to be paid less for equal work and denied promotions to upper level positions.The Barnard Class of 2011 is facing prejudice just as I did in the late 60’s after college. I thought ideas would change and that women’s rights would come along much faster than they have.

  • Idzan of Malaysia

    So true. Husbands and kids call us nags if we speak too much. If the men speak much, they regard themselves as wise sage. They even dub us querulous hag. Some Malaysian men like their women to be quiet and demure and oh so coy.
    Happy 4th of July to you and all Americans. Is the fireworks display at Navy Pier grander on this day than the one I saw one Saturday? I like the opening line of “Welcome to the greatest city in the world.”
    P.S. Please welcome me as your FB friend. I use a nickname Izzanie Ismail for certain reasons.

  • Dmsy1937

    At book club yesterday we discussed the fact that women are still expected to bear the brunt of responsibility in the home and to do most of the volunteering at church or civic organizations.  I wish all young girls could be convinced to get a couple of degrees before even thinking of becoming part of a marriage arrangement.  It might level the playing field a bit.  Or not? 

  • Brett Busang

    I think anyone who “presents” as a listener will be dominated and done-in.  A listener – the traditional role of the, or a, woman – is not considered self-sacrificingly courteous, but a necessary adjunct to a monologuist’s ego.  The listener is taken for granted so completely that even the listener is taken off-guard and becomes, by degrees, stunned by his or her own complicity.  I have, alas, known almost as many egotistical women as men.  However, I would agree that the breezy egotism of the male is not, when it begins to strut, a surprising phenomenon.  Women are just learning how not to apologize for taking center stage and aren’t quite as good at it – though there are more “center-stagers” now than ever.  If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that men ought to pay closer attention to the more nuanced socializing women do and imitate it.  I will even go so far as to say that the best and brightest hope our race has is to become more androgynous. 

  • A. Joyce

    Stine, I doubt you’ll see this, as it’s an old post, but I’m studying Danish at university and I’d love to hear about the linguistic representations of strong women in Denmark.


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