Kathleen Parker’s latest column opens with the idea that “Barack Obama may be our first woman president.” Lest your thoughts immediately fly to the presidential package area, Parker quickly clarifies that she means President Obama is decidedly feminine in speech, or “rhetorical-testosterone deficient.” This label isn’t intended maliciously, as Parker herself notes it’s refreshing to see the markers of “feminine” speech-consideration, deliberation, “talking it out”-in a leader. Slight problem, however: The “generally speaking, males do A and females do B” claims supporting the idea don’t hold much water.
Mark Liberman at Language Log tackled the column a few days ago and pointed out that most of the ideas floated in the piece about Alpha-male-talk vs. Obama’s girly-talk were pulled out of, well, somewhere very dark (to say it passively, in more than one way). That is, Parker’s weird claim that Obama is a “chatterbox” and G.W. was not, and that Bill Clinton and Reagan also dipped successfully into female speak. (But if that’s the case, doesn’t it refute Parker’s thesis?) More importantly, Liberman writes that there’s no truth to the claim that females use passive voice more than their male counterparts. The evidence is linked in the Language Log post:
The first thing to say is that there isn’t the slightest evidence that passive-voice constructions are “feminine”. Women don’t use the passive voice more than men, and among male writers, number of passive-voice constructions doesn’t appear to have any relationship at all to real or perceived manliness. The “passive is girly” prejudice seems to be purely due to the connotations of (other senses of) the term passive , misinterpreted by people who in any case mostly wouldn’t recognize the grammatical passive voice if it bit them on the leg.
It also seems worth noting that presidential speeches are not the stuff of first drafts-they’re written by professionals, often by committee, edited and re-edited. Each word is very, very deliberate. Thus active voice is more useful in certain political situations (“We will not rest” “We will finish,” etc.), just as passive voice is a better strategic choice in others. Even if there were evidence generally tying females to the passive voice, a presidential speech is too rigorous a form to make any conclusions as to what the words say about Obama.
Photograph of President Obama by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.