I study the history of rhetoric, something that has made me intimately, painfully aware of the long history of hysteria around the idea of a woman speaking in public. The stubborn persistence of this hostility towards female speech is everywhere in evidence—as just one example, take the online and print harassment of the classicist Mary Beard, who ably responded in the London Review of Books by tracing the long history of men telling women to shut up all the way back to the Odyssey. And here we are again with Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans denying Elizabeth Warren the right to take to the Senate Floor and read aloud a letter from Coretta Scott King in opposition to the Cabinet appointment of Senator Jeff Sessions.
In justifying the collective Republican censure of their peer in the Senate Chamber, McConnell explained: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless she persisted.” Already this “nevertheless” has become a rallying cry on social media for those who are horrified by the silencing of Scott King’s letter and Warren’s speech. When I awoke this morning to the many #nevertheless hashtags, I was overwhelmed with that giddy-nauseous feeling of possibility that you get when something in popular culture twangs a string that resonates with your own scholarly obsessions. For in his malice, McConnell has fastened on precisely the best word to describe the disorderly intrusions of female speech in a public forum.
In the pre-modern world, “rhetoric” means the art of verbal persuasion, a craft of public speaking that teaches its practitioners how to shape the beliefs of an audience through verbal skill. In order to teach this skill, the rhetorical system has developed an elaborate, even excessive vocabulary to designate various forms of speech. And because of its ancient obsession with codification, the art of rhetoric has made available to us today a very precise technical term to refer to any unwelcome and unnecessary interruption of a public oration: that term is parenthesis.
We are now in the habit of thinking of parenthesis (if, in fact, we ever think of it at all) as the name for the half moon punctuation marks that set apart a textual insertion within a sentence. However, in pre-modern rhetoric, parenthesis is the name for a rhetorical figure that inserts an unnecessary phrase into an already complete sentence or speech. Superfluity is key: descriptions of parenthesis insist that a parenthesis is an unnecessary interruption, a disorderly distraction from the main point.
For example, here is how George Puttenham defines parenthesis in his 1589 Art of English Poesy:
Your first figure of tollerable disorder is Parenthesis or by an English name the Insertour and is when ye will seeme for larger information or some other purpose, to peece or graffe in the middest of your tale an vnnecessary parcell of speach, which neuerthelesse may be thence without any detriment to the rest. The figure is so common that it needeth none example, neuerthelesse because we are to teache Ladies and Gentlewomen to know their schoole points and termes appertaining to the Art, we may not refuse to yeeld examples euen in the plainest cases (my emphasis).
Puttenham says parenthesis is both “unnecessary” to speech and “commonly” used; however, despite these blots against the figure, he still provides instruction on its use because uneducated women might remain ignorant of its purposes. He teaches it, “nevertheless.” Let me intrude now with lit-crit observation: Puttenham’s description of parenthesis as one of the “plainest cases,” coupled with his derisive reference to the inadequate knowledge of his lady students, suggests a reading of “case” as a pun on female genitalia as well as implying that an often-used figure of speech is “common” or promiscuous in a sexual sense.
It’s all here: the stitching together of disorderliness, unnecessary interruptions, ignorance, sexual promiscuity, and female speech. Lest you think that my interpretation is a reach, Puttenham’s younger peer Thomas Blount makes things pretty explicit when he declares in his rhetorical manual that, “A Woman is the unnecessary Parenthesis of Nature.”
According to the terms set out by the history of rhetoric and reinforced within powerful institutions such as the schools, the courts, and the legislature, women cannot take possession of eloquence. Public speaking is always masculine. This gendering of public speech has been the work of millennia, and is not easy to combat. And yet the doubled “nevertheless” in Puttenham’s own definition cues us to a persistent worry that the expulsion of unnecessary interruptions might never be fully achieved.
Puttenham’s “nevertheless” is an opening, a chance to refuse any attempt to dismiss the unnecessary interruptions of female speech. For despite his insistence that presumptuous interruptions are “unnecessary,” and can “nevertheless” be removed without any loss of meaning, it proves difficult to banish them once they have inserted themselves. McConnell has provided us with this opening once again, encouragement for all of us to interrupt, to speak, “nevertheless.”
—Jenny C. Mann, still talking about Veronica Mars