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."