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The Women in Literature and Life Assembly
The National Council of Teachers of English
Editor:  Patricia Kelly kellyp@vt.edu
Volume 6
Fall 1997

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Both Ursula and Ariel:
Searching for a Feminist/Expressivist Theory of Voice

Heidi Estrem

What do composition teachers mean when we use the word "voice"? What is an authentic voice? How does one get one? Why should one get one? What does Peter Elbow mean when he talks about voice? What does voice mean to feminist theorists?

These questions become insistent as I hear my mom and myself talking on the phone. They become nagging as I hear an argument between a woman and man in the grocery store about whose turn it was to go shopping. They become shrill as I watch a female student leave the classroom after telling me that writing her essay in third person "was better because I didn't have to sound like myself."

I'm listening to our "Disney Classics" compact disc while I read and respond to student essays. I'm writing, responding to the essays, questioning. Cajoling, too, even coaching, and perhaps midwifing? Suddenly words emerge from the background noise and I replay the song. Ursula, the female witch in The Little Mermaid whose part is sung by a man, cajoles Ariel:

"What I want from you is ... your voice!"

Ariel, innocent and in love, answers:

"But without my voice, how can ...

And Ursula replies:

"You have your looks

your pretty face


Yes on land it's much preferred

for ladies not to say a word


And she who holds her tongue will get a man!"

My pen goes down. So this is what five-year-old girls hear: their voices must be given up in order to get men, in order to be successful. And here I am, a twenty-four year old woman teaching first-year college writing for the first time. I've been asking my students to become invested in what they are writing, to care. I've written, "Where are you in this essay? It'd be nice to hear your voice on this issue."

I am asking my students for their voices.

Being a graduate student means inhabiting borderlands, living at intersections; I am both student and teacher, both Ariel and Ursula, both enforcing the academy and living by its rules. It is a duplicitous role, one that leads a person to question more than ever what authority and authenticity are. Recently, the expressivist notion of "voice" in writing has become unsettling for me. I've asked for "voice" in my students' writing. I've wondered what my own voice is, and why I've felt a lack of it these past few years.

The Voices of My Female Students:

Exploring the Literal and Metaphorical

Uses of Voice

"Please respond to the following: Why are you or aren't you comfortable talking in class?" I said, one hot day last fall. Things had not been going especially well during class discussions. I had wanted lively, impassioned talk; what resulted was a conversation between three male students and me. "Well," wrote Christie, I got really intimidated on Tuesday because those three guys were talking and it seemed like no one disagreed with them. I wasn't sure, but I didn't totally agree with them. But I felt like I didn't have a point, or a strong argument ... so I didn't say anything."

Women, when talking about their lives, often talk in metaphors of voice and silence: "‘speaking up,' ‘speaking out,' 'being silenced' . . . 'feeling deaf and dumb’" (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, Tarule 18). Consciously or not, women like Christie know their silences ring in their ears, and know the importance of hearing their voices. For women, "the development of a sense of voice, mind, and self were intricately intertwined" (18). Why is it that moving beyond silence is so important to women, and yet so hard? In order to move out of silence, though, women have to find those who will listen (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule 15). As an instructor, I must somehow make space for women like Christie to talk, and also make space for them to be listened to.

While I was doing some classroom-based research last semester on the difficulties female students in my class had speaking up, several mentioned to me that there were times when they had opinions very different from those being shared in discussion, but were afraid to speak up because they didn't think anyone would agree with them. I had often not agreed with opinions expressed in our class discussions, but was reluctant to say that for fear I would silence the students who didn't agree with me. What I had done was silence the students who did agree with me. This taught my female students that even though I was asking for their "voice" in writing, I didn't or couldn't make room for their literal voices in the classroom. Had I not got beyond Ursula's silencing either?

The spoken voice becomes a metaphorical one when we talk about writing. Compositionists often admire writing that has "voice." Voice, for some expressivists, is "the force which drives a piece of writing forward. It is an expression of the writer's authority and concern" (Murray, in Rose 111). Ah -- authority. How can it be assumed that a writer has some, or feels she has some, or can get some? Must all writing come from a voice of authority? Each writer has a natural voice, "which is the main source of power in [her or his] writing" (Elbow 6). This authentic voice is natural, powerful; it is "the force that will make a reader listen to you, the energy that drives the meanings through his thick skull" (6).

Yes, so many times I want someone to listen. (just like Christie, and others, did in my class.) But wait-what about when I'm the one listening-do I want meanings driven through my brain? (Was this how class discussions had felt to my female students'?) Do J want my students to write this way? I'm not so sure. (Is writing with this kind of force and power always the most effective for the situation, and is writing with power always an expression of the authentic, personal voice?)

Expressivist theories of writing have offered much to students; they have allowed them to believe in their voices, to believe that their writing should portray some sense of their selves. But these same liberating expressivist theories and pedagogies "tend to overlook the crucial role that other voices play in making the same self presumably in quest of its own voice" (Fanner 306). We must somehow recognize that our voice is our own and yet not our own. (Does one really have an "authentic voice" in writing anyway? How do I encourage this? Is there only one? How do I tell when someone is "hiding" behind an inauthentic voice?)

I often encourage my students to try writing from other perspectives, to choose a "character" in their essay and attempt to write the essay from that character's point of view. Using someone else's voice can sometimes complicate their views, can show them how their voices might be like, or unlike, those of others, and can show them that their voice is one among many, and that other voices are alive and legitimate and speaking. A feminist theory of voice should push them to examine/take on the voices of those usually silenced. If my students can give voice to the rancher's wife, instead of the rancher (even though he's "important and interesting; that's why I chose him"), they will be learning about the significance of voice in writing.

Why is it that "voice" has been a powerful metaphor in composition? David Appelbaum shows how a metaphor has the power to change the status quo by bucking a traditional way of thinking. Metaphor always involves deception and new insights; "it partially hides, partially specifies, the signified" (63). What's specified in the metaphor of voice in writing is the power and individuality and authenticity evident in expressivists' uses of the term. What's being hidden are the partially formed, power(less/ful), tentative thoughts of female students. Perhaps. (So what are the voices of my students? How will I know when I've "read" their voices?)

The Body, Authority, Authenticity

My mother-in-law tells me about agonizing over her high, "squeaky" voice as a young woman. She was teaching high school by the time she was twenty after finishing her schooling early. I was constantly aware of my high voice," she said once. "Every time I talked I was monitoring it. I mean, here I was, barely two years older than some of these boys." 1, too, feel her frustration with a "feminine" voice. My voice rises as I become excited about something we're discussing in class; I quickly lower it so I'll not seem to be losing control. In seminars I hear my tentative, questioning sentences and am nearly embarrassed by them.

How do students react to the voice, the presence, of a young female instructor? How do I encourage my quiet students (male and female both, but often, primarily female) to speak in class, to feel comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions? The speaker's voice can function "as the manifestation of her ability to speak" (Rose 111). But, what happens when the "ability" she has to speak is not the ability that's valued around her? What happens when her voice is squeaky, or mousy, or breathy? Women often discover that others simply do not want to listen. Or they may find that "if they are heard, their perspectives are interpreted within male frameworks or deliberately are distorted in order to preserve those frameworks and the power embedded in them" (Foss and Foss 1).

According to expressivist theories of voice, good writing has a voice that is powerful, strong, and authoritative. What that does is make authority and power prerequisites to "real" (authentic) writing. What I wonder, then, is how this metaphorical voice in writing translates back into the literal, physical voice. Powerful, strong, and authoritative voices are defined as male. To gain anything, Ariel had to give up her voice. To command any sort of authority, my mother-in-law had to concentrate on changing her voice. But why must one have authority in order to speak?

"Authority is both the individual's belief that she has something of value to say and the community's recognition of value in what she has to say" (Aronson and Swanson 163). The first half of this statement sounds fairly expressivist; it values the individual's right to speak (write). Expressivist theories of voice, though, assume that "authority" is a recognizable thing. But how can a woman feel any sense of authority if the voice she uses to speak must be lowered or given up to be legitimate? (And what is authority anyway?) These theories also assume that, if the writer speaks with a voice of authority, the community will value it.

A woman's voice too often lacks authority simply because it is not-male. Writing that lacks strength lacks authority because it is voice-less. The accepted definition for authority is limited: male, strong, powerful, confident. We need to recognize the limited meanings imbedded in metaphors. Within the metaphor of voice are accepted truths about authority, authenticity, and power; "metaphor, unlike theorem or treatise, does not argue its truth. It exhibits if' (Applebaum 68). "Voice" is a stubborn truth to see as metaphor-at the very least, we need to see this as a metaphor, a truth but not the truth, that we use when talking about writing.

A Student and a Teacher:

Learning to be Tentative

It has been theorized that "academic discourse denies the voices of female writers, a voice that they had always possessed ... women explain their position as having no voice when their experience in academic discourse has been to perform as if without voice" (Doherty 21). A feminist theory of voice must challenge definitions. It must question what's academic, and who decided, and why. It must bring to light our monologic definition of what authority is. It must challenge and redefine authenticity.



Composition theorists and teachers have too often represented to students the lack of voice as a lack of authenticity ... without understanding the relationship of academic discourse and the positioning of the writer ... outside of what is acceptable" (Doherty 22). When speaking or writing from a historically denigrated position, where does the search for an authentic voice take the female student? (Where does the insistence on it take the female instructor?)

When I started graduate school, I often wondered why I was here. Who were all of these confident people in my seminars, these people-who-knew, these people who spoke with authority about Aristotle and Sophism and Mina Shaughnessy in the same breath? They -- men and women -- waged verbal wars over interpretations of ancient rhetoricians and modern composition theory. Why was I feeling crazily insufficient totally lacking any sort of way into the conversation? Suppose, though, that I hadn't lost a voice ... it just had no room. How then should I demand space, especially when I am not sure what "my voice" is anyway? And what would I say anyway, when I was struggling with new ideas? I did not have authority over any of the material that we were studying-a feminist theory of voice recognizes that the notion of authority is so problematic that we should be able to speak without claiming authority. All I heard were voices of assuredness, voices of fact Now I realize that verbal dueling from positions of supposed authority does not make for authentic learning. Honest, authentic learning as scholars, teachers, and students happens when we are given space to be tentative, to entertain more than one possible answer.

It is not that women have lost voice or that they lack voice but, rather, that the dominant discourse, in this case the academic discourse, has no room for its expression (Doherty 17). "All I want," says Annie Leclerc, "is my voice. You let me speak, yes, but I don't want your voice. I want my own voice, I don't trust yours anymore" (75). This sounds bold, liberating. I want my own voice, yes. (But what is my voice?) How will I know when I've found the one that's mine? But Ursula wants it too. It's part of the bargain, right?

I don't want to be/have the dominant (Ursulan) voice in the classes I teach. (Yet how can I not, within the academy?) I also don't want to be/have the dominant voice in my seminars, or in the composition community. (But in silence, am I always Ariel?)

A female graduate student writes: "My silence is often a metaphorical one: I utter words but I do not give voice to my concerns" (Doherty 19). Doherty writes that it is her academic voice that is valued and "is the one on public display" (19). The academic body ... the private made public? Does it follow that the "authentic" voice will be gagged, bargained off... in exchange for a "public, authoritative, and monologic" voice (Doherty 18)? But we have our looks! Our faces!

So, I've decided, it is false to assume an authoritative voice, as a "composition specialist" or as a teacher. I think I have something to say, though ... if I say it tentatively, recognizing the subjectivity of my position as a scholar, are others hearing it? Are my students? Do they hear my voice, or my (female) body?

Re-visioning "Voice"

I want to learn how to allow the sounds of my students' voices, and my own, to have meaning and connections. There is too much useful in the metaphor of "voice" to give it up completely. A reconsidered, re-envisioned theory of voice realizes that voices must not only speak with authority, and that sometimes tentative voices are just as informative and are more authentic to the community and to the writer's self. Voices whisper, shout, gossip, harangue; room needs to be made in expressivist theory for this to occur. Personal stories and talk need to be legitimized within the academy as acceptable, helpful, and even thought provoking. Students (and teachers) need space and time to be tentative, to question, to wonder.

Women, especially, are culturally bound to their bodies. A feminist theory of voice in the expressivist composition classroom recognizes and does not attempt to disguise this. It does, however, always ask why. A feminist theory of voice realizes that there is not one voice, one authentic voice, but a cacophony of cultural, spiritual, physical, personal, and public voices. It allows for a fluid definition of the academic body. It allows for gossip, for connections, for un-silencings. It values writing that is full of voice, even if (or because) it is tentative, unsure, or circular. It realizes that problems will not be solved nor theses proven within a paragraph, essay, or book. It acknowledges, too, that it does not construe an objective truth; no voice speaks with complete authority. It recognizes the perspective of the writer, yet believes, too that the writer has something valuable to show the world through her impressions.

This theory of voice does not transplant or replace expressivist theories. It fills in the overlap, though, between feminism and expressivism. It creates a borderland, a land where it is possible to be both teacher and student, both expressivist and feminist, both individual and collective . . . both Ursula and Ariel.


Appelbaum, David. Voice. Albany, New York: State U of New York P, 1990.

Aronson, Anne L. and Diana L. Swanson. "Graduate Women on the Brink: Writing as 'Outsiders Within.’" Women's Studies Quarterly 3/4 (1991): 156-173.

Belenky, Mary E, Blythe M. Clinchy, Nancy R. Goldberger, and Jill M. Tarule. Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self Voice, and Mind. New York: Basic, 1986.

Davis, Kathy. Toward a Feminist Rhetoric: The Gilligan Debate Revisited. Women's Studies International Forum 15.2 (1992): 219-23 1.

Doherty, Patricia Brewer. "Women Writing in School: Hiding Voice." Women's Studies Ouarterly 1/2 (1994): 14-25.

Elbow, Peter. "Shifting Relationships Between Speech and Writing." College Composition and Communication 36.3 (October 1985): 283-303.

Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.

Farmer, Frank. "Voice Reprised: Three Etudes for a Dialogic Understanding." Rhetoric Review 13.2 (Spring 1995): 304-320.

Foss, Karen A. and Sonja K. Foss. Women Speak: The Eloquence of Women’s Lives. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 199 1,

Jones, Deborah. "Gossip: Notes on Women's Oral Culture' in The Feminist Critique of Language, ed. Deborah Cameron. London: Routledge, 1990.

Leclerc, Annie. "Woman's Word" in The Feminist Critique of Language, ed. Deborah Cameron. London: Routledge, 1990.

Rose, Shirley K. "The Voice of Authority: Developing a Fully Rhetorical Definition of Voice in Writing. " The Writing Instructor (Spring 1989).. 111-118.

Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don't Understand. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990.

Walt Disney Records. Classic Disney, Vol. 1. Burbank, CA: Buena Vista Pictures Distributions, Inc. 1995.

Heidi Estrem lives in Reno and teaches English at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her dissertation will follow students through the transitions they make when they leave high school English classes and enter college first-year composition classes.


© 1997 The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation: Estrem, Heidi. (1997). "Both Ursula and Ariel: Searching for a Feminist/Expressivist Theory of Voice." WILLA, Volume VI, p. 13-17.

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