‘Shrill’ women in politics


The United States once again has the opportunity to elect the first woman as President, Hillary Clinton. Her chances of getting the Democratic nomination are quite strong. Not surprisingly then, there’s a lot of talk about women in politics. 

Candidates for president have to make numerous speeches, participate in televised debate theatrics, and play the politics game nonstop for months. All of this requires them to be seen as simultaneously assertive and likable. Sexism makes this balancing act particularly tough for women. When demonstrating passion or anger, through for example, yelling or speaking loudly, male candidates like Clinton’s main competitor the loud-talking Bernie Sanders might be seen as “passionate” or “hard-hitting”. Those same speech qualities (or even less extreme ones) might be “shrill” for a female candidate like Hillary Clinton. Indeed, Donald Trump called Clinton “shrill” months ago.

But if you’re thinking this is just about the blatant, unapologetic sexism of people like Trump, you’d be wrong. The chart above shows that women and girls are more likely to be called “shrill” than men and boys in the media. This is despite the fact that the media less frequently talk about women and girls. In the chart, the dotted lines show how frequent men and women would be labelled “shrill” if the label were applied equally across gender lines. I estimate that women and girls are about 2.3 times more likely to be labelled “shrill” than men and boys in mass media venues like television, radio, newspapers, and magazines.

Observing how Clinton tries to avoid labels like “shrill” and how the media dissects her persona this campaign cycle should provide some insight into how women can successfully or not so successfully occupy positions of power in 2016.


Notes on methods

I used the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) to collect my data. I restricted my search to the spoken, newspaper, and magazine sections. Here is my search.

I looked at all 380 instances of the word “shrill”. I found that most did not clearly apply to an individual (or homogenous groups of men or women). However, 120 were applied to individuals and their manner of speech or the nature of their arguments and appeals. Of these 120, 69 referred to women or girls; 51, to men and boys.

I have previously shown that girls and women are underrepresented in COCA. They account for only about 37% of the people mentioned in COCA. I used this information to estimate the greater likelihood that women would be called “shrill”.

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Language and gender, Language and politics
2 comments on “‘Shrill’ women in politics
  1. jessicabennett says:

    Love this!

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Girl says:

    An interesting post.

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