You and GenderAvenger: Suzanne Kahn and the Consequences of Too Few Women Role Models

When Avenger Gina first told me about GenderAvenger I immediately thought about my students. As a teaching assistant I had assigned my American History students an oral presentation on research projects they had conducted. In preparation, we asked each student to send the class a YouTube clip of an academic presentation he/she particularly admired.

When the clips came in, every single one was of a white man. When I pointed this out to my students, they expressed some embarrassment, but they all defended their choices as great lectures. And they were. The clips they sent in featured brilliant academics giving animated talks — certainly not a given — about the work they loved. We should all aspire to give talks like those.

All those talks also looked the same, though. By that I don’t mean that all the presenters were balding white men over 60, although they were. I mean that all the talks were in exactly the same style. Experts with deep voices told interesting stories, made self-deprecating jokes, and dispensed wisdom. It’s a good model for an academic talk, but it’s not the only model, and, if we want a diverse academy and public dialogue, it can’t be.

by HHU (HHU) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

by HHU (HHU) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As a young, female scholar, I’m acutely aware that, short of developing a cigarette addiction, my voice will never be that deep. When I give a presentation, in many rooms, I have not yet developed, or earned, the gravitas that would allow me to be self-deprecating and still be taken seriously. I do better with the more interactive presentation styles that I have seen many women (and younger male) scholars employ, and many of my students — male and female — do, too.

When my students gave their presentations during the following class, many were nervous. How could they not be? As I have learned the hard way, when our model of a great speech requires looking and sounding like a 60-year-old man, many of us are doomed to feel that we come up short, and when we think we are bad public speakers we are far less likely to volunteer to speak. It’s a vicious circle. If women feel like bad public speakers because they don’t look or sound like their male models, they don’t put themselves forward, and then there are too few women out there redefining what a good speech sounds like.

by Tulane Public Relations (Law School classes-14 uploaded by Albert Herring) [ CC-BY-2.0 ],  via Wikimedia Commons

by Tulane Public Relations (Law School classes-14 uploaded by Albert Herring) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

GenderAvenger’s work is so important because we need diverse models for how to participate in the public dialogue and to see what authority looks like. Sometimes authority looks like the wisdom that can come with age, or the deep voice that can come with a Y chromosome. Sometimes women are lucky enough to have a deep voice and striking confidence, and sometimes men are not. But men and women — and especially young students — are better served by multiple models of a good speech. Only by having more women participate in the public dialogue can we empower a truly diverse set of people to speak up.

Avenger Suzanne Kahn is a PhD Candidate in American History and a long-time activist.