Red and green sheet music featuring photograph of a man and woman.

“Women Cry – Men Swear”: Gender and Stuttering in the Early Twentieth-Century United States

Speech specialist Ernest Tompkins was not alone in thinking that he had figured out what caused stuttering. But when Tompkins penned his 1918 Scientific American article, he not only aimed to disprove other theories from his contemporaries, he also wanted to conclude once and for all the very reason why there seemed to be more boys who stuttered into adulthood than there were girls. Tompkins joined a growing number of writers, scholars, and speech therapists interested in what they called speech defects, who argued that girls had “immunity” or had more easily “recovered” from stuttering because of some quality inherent to their sex or gender. According to Tompkins, the most compelling of such gender-based theories was that, because girls were “in the house more” instead of playing “in the streets” like boys, mothers shielded their daughters from the “unjust treatment” that boys faced in a society that ridiculed them for not conforming to “speech conventions.”[1] Such ridicule invariably worsened speech in boys. Implicit in Tompkins’s argument was the idea that the socially constructed turn-of-the-century women’s spheres protected girls from the conditions that enabled stuttering to persist in boys.

Most turn-of-the-century American theories about stuttering argued that there were vastly different experiences between men and women with speech defects. Speech defect was a term specialists like Tompkins used that encompassed many forms of speech disfluency, including stuttering, lisping, or the inability to speak. It was even used at times to describe an immigrant who spoke with a noticeable foreign accent. Speech professionals argued that if left untreated, stuttering would lead to a life of social degradation, moral failure, and poverty. As is obvious to attuned modern observers, discriminatory assumptions, rather than the existence of the stutter itself, are more often a precondition for social marginalization. Indeed, stutterers’ lived experiences offer ample evidence of the ridicule many individuals experienced from classmates and employers. As is clear from medical texts, speech professionals found that being socially ostracized was a symptom of the stutter itself, rather than a consequence of societal values that too readily marked stutterers as social outcasts and therefore justifiably ridiculed.

A World War I soldier and a woman in a bonnet clasp hands on the cover of the sheet music.
Sheet music for the 1918 song about a stammering soldier, “K-K-K-Katy.” (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Not all of Tompkins’s contemporaries focused so exclusively on gender-based theories of stuttering. Speech professionals had seemingly endless theories for why around half a million Americans stuttered or stammered, terms that were used largely synonymously at the time. University of Wisconsin speech instructor Harry Wood, for example, argued that physical changes in stutterers such as cleft palate or malformations of the jaw were to blame.[2] Pathologists also pointed to nervous disorders as causes or symptoms of stuttering. Wood explained rigorous military service could cause stuttering in “hysterical” persons. Civilians with anxiety neurosis, by contrast, were distressed about the pressures of modern life and could just as easily stutter.[3] Some medical specialists even argued that stuttering caused mental instability, because a person’s “knowledge is locked up by his infirmity.”[4] The myriad theories about the causes of stuttering lead Ernest Tompkins to question, “in that quagmire of superstition, guesses, speculation and sunbaked theory, is there no light?”[5]

For Ernest Tompkins, though, gender assumptions promised to bring light to the causes of stuttering. At the time Tompkins wrote his article, “Stammering and the Ladies,” the ratio of boys to girls who stuttered was three to one, and that ratio expanded as children grew into adulthood.[6] While some publications suggested that stuttering was a pathological disease to which women were somehow immune, Tompkins emphatically argued that women were not, in fact, immune to stuttering. By contrast, Tompkins wrote that it was far more accurate to say that stuttering was simply more apt to disappear in girls than in boys.[7]

Notwithstanding their specific gender-based prescriptions, speech correction specialists pinpointed childhood and recreation as the best places to understand the male-female stuttering ratio. Around the turn of the century, adolescent recreation typically took place outdoors. As the United States rapidly industrialized, and as families faced mounting economic insecurities, individuals sought a release from the anxiety-inducing stresses of modern life by going outside the bounds of home or factory.[8] Regardless of age, the natural world enjoyed widespread appeal as a site of recreation and overall health. But environmental therapy was not an exclusive prescription for overworked adult men, according to speech pathologist and stutterer Benjamin Bogue. “The boy of studious disposition,” Bogue wrote in 1910, “keeps close to the house and does not play with other children of his age,” and therefore disrupts masculine recreational expectations. Consequently, the boy will “find time for much introspection” that can contribute to stuttering.[9] By contrast, boys were sure to be protected from a life of anxious stuttering if they embraced healthy play and fresh air. Outdoor recreation, though, was not such a simple antidote to speech disfluency. Bogue also warned that a child needed to be cautious on the playground. For, if boys spent too much time around other stutterers, and especially so if they took to imitating them, they would surely become stutterers themselves.[10] In the wilderness of the outdoors, it seemed to Bogue, at least, that boys could either master themselves or become mastered by others.

Newspaper ad with the headline "Do You Stammer?" The copy promises a cure for stammering.
An 1899 ad for a guide that promises to rid the reader of stammering. (Courtesy The Victorian Historian)

Unlike boys, girls “recovered” from stuttering sufficiently enough before school years because, as one specialist argued, they spent more time in the home under the watchful eye of their mothers who enforced proper speech patterns.[11] Ernest Tompkins, for example, argued that women recovered from stuttering at a higher rate than men because their mothers broke them of the habit while in the home.[12] At once speech professionals argued that boys needed to get out of the constraints of home life to expend energy that, if bottled up, caused an individual to stutter. Yet, such professionals also argued that by remaining in the home – the very condition that caused boys to stutter – girls were able to better perfect their speech through proper maternal guidance. Speech authorities were careful to craft their theories alongside conventional gendered ideas about recreation and leisure that placed men and women in separate spheres. It is no wonder that one predominant theory argued that stutterers needed to release the tensions of modern society by playing, swearing, or crying, or they, too, could become stutterers. And to detangle who did what to release such stress, the theoreticians argued: “Women cry – men swear.”[13]

The intellectual culture surrounding speech defects in the early twentieth century makes clear that, while stuttering may not come to mind as readily when examining discourses of disability, society has long treated people with communicative disorders in marginalizing ways similar to other disabled people. And while examining the intersections of disability and gender is not new, disability scholars have thus far given far less attention to speech disfluency proportional to other disability histories, highlighting a fertile ground for future scholarship.[14] Indeed, early twentieth century gender conventions reinforced, and were reinforced by, the social pressures to conform one’s ability to normative speech patterns. Speech specialists and stutterers alike argued that childhood was the most important time for determining whether or not someone would stutter for life or be “cured,” highlighting the medical model discourse so intrinsic to disability rhetoric of the time. But while the concept of cure had medical connotations, its reasoning was decidedly gendered. Men had to release stress by mastering their bodies and minds outside of the home. Women, by contrast, shed their stutter in girlhood only if they remained within the confines of the home and under the watchful eyes of their mothers. Early-twentieth-century conversations among Ernest Tompkins and his contemporaries about stuttering were, therefore, as likely to be about gender insecurities as they were about speech anxieties.

Notes

  1. Ernest Tompkins, “Stammering and the Ladies,” Scientific American Supplement 2218 (July 6, 1918): 10.
  2. “Third Day,” Box 1, Folder 17: Correction of Speech Disorders, 1922, Harry T. Wood Papers, Eastern Michigan University Archives; and “Sixth Day,” Box 1, Folder 17: Correction of Speech Disorders, 1922, Harry T. Wood Papers, Eastern Michigan University Archives.
  3. Miss Camp, “Lecture: Speech Disorders,” Box 1, Folder 17: Correction of Speech Disorders, 1922, Harry T. Wood Papers, Eastern Michigan University Archives; and “Nineteenth Day,” Box 1, Folder 17: Correction of Speech Disorders, 1922, Harry T. Wood Papers, Eastern Michigan University Archives.
  4. Benjamin Nathaniel Bogue, Advice to Stammerers, 8th ed. (Indianapolis: Benjamin Bogue, 1910), 23.
  5. Tompkins, “Stammering and the Ladies,” 10.
  6. Tompkins, “Stammering and the Ladies,” 10.
  7. Tompkins, “Stammering and the Ladies,” 10.
  8. Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (Oxford University Press, 2012), 7; David G. Schuster, Neurasthenic Nation: America’s Search for Health, Happiness, and Comfort, 1869–1920 (Rutgers University Press, 2011); and Richard Noll, American Madness: The Rise and Fall of Dementia Praecox (Harvard University Press, 2011).
  9. Bogue, Stammering, 117–18.
  10. Bogue, Stammering, 210–11.
  11. Edward Conradi, “Psychology and Pathology of Speech Development of the Child” (PhD diss.: Clark University, 1904), 36; and Tompkins, “Stammering and the Ladies,” 10.
  12. “Stuttering Among Males and Females,” Box 1, Folder 35: Seminar in Speech Correction, University of Iowa 1923–1924, Harry T. Wood Papers, Eastern Michigan University Archives.
  13. “Graduate course in the Summer session in 1923,” Box 1, Folder 19: Seminar in Correction of Speech Disorders, 1923, Harry T. Wood Papers, Eastern Michigan University Archives; and “Seventeenth Day,” Box 1, Folder 17: Correction of Speech Disorders, 1922, Harry T. Wood Papers, Eastern Michigan University Archives.
  14. See, for example, Bonnie G. Smith and Beth Hutchison, eds., Gendering Disability (Rutgers University Press, 2004). For a more thorough examination of speech disfluency within the context of disability, see Joshua St. Pierre, “The Construction of the Disabled Speaker: Locating Stuttering in Disability Studies,” Canadian Journal of Disability Studies 1, no. 3 (2012); Joseph P. Carter, “The Everyday Anxiety of the Stutterer,” in About Us: Essays from the Disability Series of the New York Times edited by Peter Catapano and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019); and Jared S. Richman, “The Royal Treatment: Temporality and Technology in The King’s Speech,” Disability Studies Quarterly 40, no. 4 (2020).

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