A Female Senator Explains Why Uptalk Is Part of Women's 'Nature'

Yet Kirsten Gillibrand says women also need to learn that it's okay to be aggressive. 

Even before Cher Horowitz of Clueless shopped her way into the world in 1995, cultural commentators spent a lot of energy fretting about uptalk. You know, uptalk? That oft-mocked conversational style, usually attributed to the "Valley Girl"? The one that implies a question mark at the end of otherwise perfectly declarative statements?

As a linguistic stereotype, uptalk has been debunked—boys and girls both use it, and it doesn't just signal docility or uncertainty, as is often assumed. But the phrase "uptalk" is still used to symbolize a broader set of social tendencies that are particularly prevalent among young women: body language and intonations that make girls seem less confident about themselves.

When Senator Kirsten Gillibrand took the stage at The Atlantic's Shriver Report summit on women and poverty on Wednesday, she mostly focused on policy: universal pre-K, affordable daycare, paid family leave, etc. But one of the men in the audience stood up and posed a question that hinted at the stickier social stigmas at work in gender inequality: What about the women who hold themselves back with the way they present themselves to others?

One might have expected Gillibrand to revert to a Lean In-style answer: Girls need to take their rightful place at the table, they shouldn't count themselves out, etc. But while her response had an element of that, she phrased it in a particularly interesting way: Uptalk, she explained, is part of women's "nature."

"The interesting thing about women is that we are often collaborative in nature," Gillibrand said. "We generally prefer to be well-liked, and we like for people around us to be happy. These are some skills we learn being mothers and daughters: We feed everyone at the table, try to make everyone happy ..."

At this point, her interviewer, National Journal's Ron Brownstein, interrupted. "What's wrong with you?" he asked with a sly smile.

Gillibrand smiled and demurred, providing a real-time illustration of her observations about men and women's social tendencies. 

"This issue of likability. For a lot of young women, they want to be well-liked. If they’re too aggressive, or too pushy, or too declarative, they won’t be well-liked," she said. 

But Gillibrand also encouraged young women to be more aggressive: "To meet those standards, you have to speak less like a young girl and more like a young, aspiring professional."

Then she repeated an interesting word choice: nature.  

"It’s part of our nature. It's not a bad part of our nature. [But] it’s a choice every young woman is going to have to make about how she wants to be and how she wants to be received."

It seems unlikely that Gillibrand was commenting on the "essential nature of women" in a Women and Gender Studies 101 kind of way, but this framing was nonetheless surprising. Gillibrand is a former high-powered attorney and a United States senator, so clearly she has learned to present herself in a way that earns respect from her peers. Her message to younger women who aspire to similarly successful careers is that they are responsible for cultivating their own self-presentation. Uptalk is not a matter of the world's discrimination against women, but rather how women choose to present themselves.

Although the difference is subtle, this attitude is a refreshing departure from feminism that focuses exclusively on the way the world holds women back. Gillibrand is arguing that women have at least some power to change the way people look at them, and it starts with how they talk.

Presented by

Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

More in Politics

Just In