I once played a dinner-party game with friends. We took turns drawing cards from a deck of conversation starters. What famous person, dead or living, would you like to have dinner with? That sort of thing. The question I drew asked what famous person’s voice would I like to take on for a day.
Thought of certain theatrical artists and actors arose as I combed my mind for candidates. They train their voices for the stage. They learn to annunciate and project. Actors know how to breathe. You’d think breathing would come naturally. I often forget to do it when I’m anxious or overly focused on a task. A well-meaning new acquaintance once commented unbidden, on the pitch of my voice and the way I spoke from ‘high in my throat’. She claimed that these aspects pointed to mother issues I’d yet to unpack. I gaped at her. Although I’ve written openly about the mother wound, the betrayal of my vocal cords felt like an ambush.
It would be a profound privilege to wear the weight of wisdom contained in a single word spoken by Maya Angelou. With a voice so deep and rich, she must have sounded profound even reading aloud from a cereal box or dictionary. She spoke out among history makers and world shapers. She used her voice for justice. And when Maya spoke, because each syllable rang rich and true, we all leaned in to listen.
The strong steady voice of actor activist Tantoo Cardinal calms me. In her roles, I sense such care and pride for her First Nation culture. She speaks warm-voiced without falter about her reverence for Mother Earth, the environment, fire and water. Her voice carries passionate regard for the importance of ceremony in society. Tantoo speaks about the importance of stories, songs, dances and the arts as “a fundamental force for any society to be healthy” regardless of one’s creed or colour. It would be an honour sound and speak as she does.
I think of Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Her voice in and out of role, projects authority and eloquence. I’d happily become a voice chameleon for a day to sound like Cate as Elizabeth or French Claire Simone in Monuments of Men. She too speaks out about a number of social causes. Voice coaches on YouTube teach how to sound like Cate, so I know I’m not alone in my admiration. I appreciate the rounded richness of these women’s God-given voices, but at the end of the day, I’ll keep my own.
Not everyone has been a fan of women speaking. In her manifesto Women & Power, author Mary Beard writes about ancient Rome where public speaking was seen as a rite of passage for elite men. No one wanted to hear women. “As one ancient scientific treatise explicitly put it, a low-pitched voice indicated manly courage, a high-pitched voice female cowardice.” They’d never met Dolly Parton. Author Henry James (1843-1916) was among the critics of the ‘whines and whinnies’ of women’s public speaking voices. He said, “in the name of our homes, our children, of our future, our national honour, don’t let woman talk like that.”
After Margaret Thatcher’s advisors warned that her high pitch lacked authority. She underwent vocal training and learned to speak in a lower register. I rather like Mary Beard’s response to women feeling pressured to alter their natural voice to be heard. “Putting it bluntly, having women pretend to be men may be a quick fix, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.”
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