Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell
[p.74]A columnist for a Salt Lake City paper recently wrote a piece about my whistling. (Admittedly, columnists get hard up for subject matter.) Mainly, he was surprised at my skill. “After all,” he wrote, “women don’t whistle.”
Now, the issue of women whistling or not whistling is hardly on the cutting edge of feminism. As the earth orbits the sun and our planet moves ever closer to the second millennium A.D., there are more significant matters facing us. Still…
In defense of long-time women warblers, I’m going to offer this column, not in rebuttal, but for equal consideration along with my colleague’s remarks.
Let’s get to the quick of the matter: my misguided friend said, “Women don’t whistle.” Now that is false. He had the evidence of his own ears to prove otherwise: he had heard me whistling. So the “don’t” obviously doesn’t mean “can’t,” as it might in the statement, “Dogs don’t whistle.”
As further evidence, I have before me as I write a clipping from the Philadelphia Inquirer of 15 July 1982. This item shows a photograph of an eight-month-old infant whistling, to the delight of the parents, Mr. and Mrs. Louis Cohen. The baby, you [p.75] will not be surprised to learn, is a girl. Clearly girls and women can whistle. Whistling is not a sex-linked skill. (I have been told, however, by experts who devote their lives to the study of such oddities, that more females than males can curl their tongues into a circle. No one seems to know why.)
No, “can’t” is not the issue here. “Shouldn’t” is the real culprit. I had my showdown with this culprit before I wrote my age in two figures. Apparently, like the infant Carrie Cohen, I whistled precociously. I talked later than average and, alas, never learned to sing, but I whistled clearly and often from my crib. However, when I entered school, I first heard the couplet, so oft-cited to me now as to be definitely wearisome: “Whistling girls and crowing hens/ Are sure to come to no good ends.” Crowing is the prerogative of roosters, and whistling is the prerogative of male humans. Women, says Society, should not whistle.
Now why has Society, in all its wisdom, decreed against whistling for women? That question brings us into the realm of larger issues. Some say that the patriarchy has long decreed silence to be Woman’s best state. Women, like children, were best seen and not heard. Literature is filled with male narrators who extol a woman’s beauty and lament its desecration as soon as she speaks. Oh yes.
A second explanation might be Society’s nervousness whenever women showed too much vigor. Take more serious musical endeavors than whistling as an example. For years, women were discouraged from playing the visibly robust band and orchestra instruments—the trumpet, trombone, tuba, drums. Instead, they were guided towards more “ladylike” choices: flute, harp, small strings, small woodwinds. It was this same brilliant reasoning that limited girls’ basketball in my era to two dribbles at a time by anyone player—and no crossing the center line.
I have yet a third theory about whistling and women. Whistling is a casual, nonchalant activity. It gives a message of relaxed, informal unconcern about anything but the present moment. In that way, it’s a bit like putting your hands in your pockets as you stroll. To most of us, walking with hands in pockets is a masculine bit of body language—but have you ever asked yourself why?
Well, theory aside and despite Society, some women have always whistled. (I cannot give testimony about crowing hens.) [p.76]I’m sure I whistled so young because my grandmother, with whom we lived, filled her days with happy, busy whistling. While her hands worked away with a broom or pie dough or heavy iron, Nanny’s lips trilled merrily, melodiously. Her music was the background music of my childhood. A number of women nesting up in my family tree were career women of one sort or another (mostly midwives and nurses, one store-keeper), but Nanny was exclusively domestic. In her traditional home I learned that whistling women meant coziness and good cheer. My mother whistled as well. When as a school child I was teasingly told the business about crowing hens et al., I filed it away as more of the foolishness my father had warned me I would encounter in the world. (He often quoted Puck: “What fools these mortals be!”)
Incidentally, though whistling is still in my mind associated with jaunty independence of spirit, I have learned that it is not incompatible with elegance. One of the most elegant women I ever knew was a colleague of patrician slimness, beautiful carriage, exquisite wardrobe—and wonderful whistle. For clarity, melodiousness, and repertoire, she was unparalleled. Nowadays, out in Nevada, they hold an annual National Whistlers’ Contest—with prizes offered in both Women’s and Men’s Divisions. One of these fine days I’m going to polish up my rendition of the “Stars and Stripes Forever” or maybe “The Happy Wanderer” and hitch-hike over there, thumb up, the other hand in my pocket, and a song on my lips. Care to join me?