Women Living with Stuttering

The inaugural workshop of Women Living with Stuttering occurred at the 2002 National Stuttering Association (NSA) convention, presented by the following four women who facilitated small group discussions on the topics below. A safe environment was created for women who stutter to discuss these topics and how the stuttering community can best support them. For once women were not the minority in the room! So often when women attend workshops or support groups for people who stutter they are greatly out numbered since stuttering affects a much larger percentage of men than women.

As a result of this workshop an International Online Support Group for Women and Girls Living with Stuttering has been started. If you are a female who stutters and are interested in joining the forum please send an e-mail to women_girls_living_with_stuttering-subscribe@yahoogroups.com or contact Nora O'Connor for more information, nora95@juno.com

The panel has agreed to answer appropriately-posed questions about stuttering in women.

Brett Kluetz, Kari Kelso, Vanna Nicks, Nora O'Connor

You can post Questions/comments to any or all of the presenters before October 22, 2002.

Professional Working Women and Stuttering: Where Are Our Role Models?
by Kari Kelso, Ph.D.

Abstract: This paper discusses some of the key issues facing women who stutter who have chosen a career or are thinking of a career outside of the home. Since women represent only about 20-25% of the total population of people who stutter, and many women do not enter the external workforce at all, centering their lives around the home and family, we have only a limited understanding of the impact of stuttering on working women. The paper concludes with a list of core questions to ask yourself as a woman who stutters. The questions lend themselves to a great support group meeting topic.

For several years I have given a workshop on the working career woman and stuttering. The workshop was developed through conversations I had with a fellow working woman who stutters, Lorraine Reigel. We would oftentimes talk about the difficulties we faced in the working world. At the time, Lorraine's job at a major computer manufacturer involved multiple phone conferences on any given day in her role as manager of a "virtual team" whose members are located around the country. As Lorraine and I talked, we had difficulty identifying other women who were at her level of management, stuttered and conducted so many teleconferences or were in such highly communicatively demanding jobs. It didn't stop there. We started to categorize all the women who stuttered we had met through the NSA, IFA and college speech clinics and programs by their vocational choices. We came up with several identifiable levels or clusters:

  1. Women who stutter in speech pathology
  2. Women who stutter in the "helping professions," including K-12 teaching
  3. Women who stutter pursuing higher education or affiliated with higher education
  4. Women who stutter in non-profit settings
  5. Women who stutter in entrepreneurial enterprises
  6. Women who stutter in corporate environments
Let me share with you some of our thoughts as we constructed this list. Most of the women we identified fell into the first three categories. In this cluster, we could quickly name numerous successful women. The numbers fell off dramatically in levels 4 through 6. Where were women in these other areas? And, where were women who stutter in managerial and leadership positions in level six?

As we brainstormed about all of the women we had interacted with over the years, we started to think about their vocational choice in relation to their severity of stuttering. Although certainly not a scientific survey, it appeared there was a correlation. The higher the professional status, the less the stuttering was apparent. However, it wasn't so simplistic. It was not just that the stuttering was less apparent, it was that the struggle of the stuttering was less apparent. Stuttering was not the issue so much as the extent to which the individual handled their stuttering in their presentation of self.

It also seemed that the stronger the interpersonal communication skills of the individual, the greater the likelihood of career success. What might this mean to women who stutter who may lack the confidence for strong interpersonal communication skills? We realized that many women, mirroring the stereotypical interpersonal communication style expected of our gender in society, could easily "hide" their stuttering by not speaking up in meetings, deferring to another in a conversation, developing higher listening skills, and working harder behind the scenes as a support person. These may be perceived as strong interpersonal skills for women, but these same skills can work against the career-track minded women who stutters.

We thought of isolated examples of high profile women who stutter who managed their stuttering in an open, interpersonally suitable manner appropriate for the situation, but the numbers of such women were not nearly as high as we would like. Consider on top of this partial list based on women who work, the larger issue that many women we thought of had self-selected themselves out of working through marriage and family.

Personally, I just paid a career counselor $90/hour to work on my own career path. Notwithstanding a Ph.D. in Organizational Communication from the University of Texas, my own journey towards a career has been less than ideal. Recently when I was teaching part-time in the California State University system, a reporter came to my class to cover my experiences as a person who stutters. As the photographer shot pictures, the reporter asked the class about what they thought of having a professor who stuttered. I thought I had done a good job of managing my stuttering in the class, which was the basic undergraduate course on communication. My strategies included being proactive on the first day of class and talking about my stuttering, and making sure from time to time to use some appropriate "stuttering" story examples in a lecture, stories that fit within the subject matter of the class.

I was not prepared for the students' responses to the reporter's question. One student compared having a professor who stuttered teaching communication to having a mechanic with no hands. As someone who is not too high on a stuttering severity scale, open about my stuttering and always working on improving my own communication skills, that was tough to hear. The comment made me think of other women in highly communicative jobs such as teaching, administrative or managerial work, and of how they are perceived by their colleagues. You can believe you are projecting the best possible positive portrayal of stuttering, but in reality you may be missing the mark completely. Adjunct faculty teaching was a very difficult vocation for me, and I struggled hard to separate out the degree to which stuttering has impacted my choice to leave it. I am interested in full-time university teaching, but my field is impacted so I am currently looking elsewhere in the more general field of research and writing.

This is where this short paper comes full circle. I still am on a quest to locate more women who stutter who, on varying career ladders, have achieved a certain level of personal success in the work world. We need to start sharing the difficulties of working and being women who stutter. Too many times, I think women settle for a less communicatively demanding job because of stuttering, particularly since family and home obligations and the pressure (or opportunity) of not being the main "bread winner" provides an escape from the additional communication pressure associated with pursuing high performance careers.

Discussion Questions:

Recommended Reading: Hewlett, S. A. (2002). Creating a life: Professional women and the quest for children. New York: Hyperion.

Women Living With Stuttering in Relationships and Family: Is Your Voice Being Heard?
by Brett Kleutz, MA, CCC-SLP

Because I am a doctoral student in communication science and disorders, my natural inclination was to peruse the literature and find established concerns of women who stutter to bring to the discussion on women who stutter in relationships. However, this literature is unfortunately slim to non-existent. So, where could I find information for this paper or topics for the discussion questions below? From the archives of my own mind-- as a woman who stutters and from multiple personal and professional conversations that I have had with women who stutter (WWS). While some of these issues may also pertain to males who stutter, it is clear that women and men have fundamentally different communication styles (Tannen, 1990) and experiences in society.


One issue of concern for WWS is dependency. Some women rely on their partners, family or friends to speak for them when faced with challenging speaking situations. When WWS begin to do this at an early age, they run the risk of "losing their voice" and promulgating avoidance patterns that can continue into adulthood. Not surprisingly, most individuals do not like to be so dependent on others. Many of the women I have spoken with have indicated that their loved ones are "just used to it" or conversely, impatient and do not understand why they just do not speak for themselves. I can say from experience that it feels better to just let go as the NSA so aptly suggests in its newsletter "Letting Go," and let your voice be heard. I've found that taking that risk is worth it-- not just for yourself and your feelings of self-worth, but also for your relationships. Some partners/friends/family may grow tired of for example, always ordering at a restaurant or making relevant phone calls. Is it worth possibly straining relationships just to avoid stuttering? Stuttering can wreak havoc if you let it. It can pervade your thoughts and bring about "self- preservation" mode. Thus, it can eclipse other important aspects of one's life. If you are fortunate enough to have loving relationships (romantic or platonic) in your life, it may be worth considering the possible ramifications of being overly dependent on others just to avoid stuttering. It is, however, not always easy to "just let go," and nothing is black-and-white. Many of the women I know, including myself, are moving towards facing their speaking challenges. This process is not necessarily linear and it is not uncommon to revert to old comfortable ways. Yet, moving toward self-reliance is not only imperative in cultivating your own voice, but it may even be healthier for your relationships.

Communication: New and Old Relationships

Many of the WWS who I have spoken with tend to avoid new social situations. They avoid attending parties or other social events for fear that they will "be found out" and perhaps rejected. This can be a major burden for women who are inherently out-going, but resist their true nature for fear of stuttering. This can also be challenging for partners, friends and family who want to be social. Some WWS I have spoken with have noted that they feel guilty because they do not want to prevent their partners or friends from having a good time at a party or other social event. Furthermore, some women have indicated that they worry that their partner/friends/and family will be embarrassed by their stuttering. Again, the fear and avoidance of stuttering can be stressful on relationships. Some women avoid dating and tend to be in long-term relationships, which is wonderful if they have found the "right" person, but perhaps not so wonderful if it is just a "safe" situation. Several women I know who have gone through speech therapy have ended certain relationships once they gained more self-confidence in their ability to let their voice be heard. Other women have expressed that they are very involved in their NSA chapters and have found that they usually date other people who stutter in their chapters. While this can be a wonderful way to meet people, some women have expressed that they fear that they avoid dating people who do not stutter for fear of rejection.

When you fear stuttering and are walking through a "mine field" to avoid stuttering, it can be very difficult to meet new people. It can also be difficult in some comfortable "old" relationships. Many of the women I have spoken with have spent many years attempting to hide their stuttering and, therefore, have not spoken much about it with other people. Yet, as we all intuitively know, the more you hide from something, the stronger it gets. Thus, the fear exacerbates situations and more stuttering can occur. Many women I know have grown tired of all the hiding and have found that being more open about stuttering lessens much of the fear of the constant fear of "being found out." Such openness does not mean that you need to tell new people your life story. And, it does not mean you are apologizing for yourself; rather, it is merely a way to alleviate the burden of needing to hide something that can in some instances, be quite difficult to hide.

When negativism permeates your thoughts, I have found it is helpful to get outside yourself and focus on the people you are speaking with. That is, focus on bringing them out and really engaging in the conversation, rather then perseverating internally about stuttering. Even if it is difficult to do this in new social situations, working towards this end seems to be a good way to lessen possible anxiety and to make your conversations more enjoyable.

Several women in the workshop mentioned that when they are frustrated with stuttering, they need to share their experiences with their loved ones. This can be important outlet, particularly because women tend to want to voice their troubles fully (Tannen, 1990). When I have felt frustrated with my stuttering or have had a challenging situation, I share it with my husband, family or closest friends. There's not much they can do but listen and they definitely cannot solve the problem. I have also specifically told them that I do not expect them to solve my issues; I may just need to vent. Just having them listen and empathize makes me feel better. With that said, it may not be a good idea to inundate your loved ones with "the same old story" and this is when it is helpful to speak with others who stutter in support groups. The NSA annual conventions and the local chapters have given many individuals who stutter a wonderful opportunity to meet others who stutter and share their experiences. Many people have forged great friendships with each other and use them as a source of support when they feel the need to share their experiences.

Motherhood (prospective and current)

Many WWS at the workshop expressed concern over becoming mothers. Since mothers are often the primary advocates for their children (e.g., attending parent conferences, making pertinent phones calls, meeting other parents at the playground etc.), this can be a daunting task for WWS who avoid speaking situations. In addition, several women expressed their fear that they will have children who stutter and will have to go "through what [they] went through."

This is another example of where WWS would benefit from support and even role models. There are undoubtedly many WWS who are mothers with successful families who would be great role models for women with concerns about motherhood. It may be harder to find role models since less women stutter than men and this is reflected in the NSA membership. Yet, there are certainly role models within the NSA who might provide support to prospective and current mothers with concerns or fears about being a mother.


After facilitating a relationship and family group at the Women Living With Stuttering Workshop at the 2002 NSA, I found that many women related to each other when discussing the aforementioned topics despite where they were in their lives in terms of acceptance of their stuttering. There are no easy answers to these issues because stuttering is frequently not simply a speech impairment; it can become a syndrome that can pervade ones thoughts and actions. But the key word here is "living;" that is, there are many women successfully living with the ebb and flow of stuttering. They can be a great source of support to each other and to women who may be struggling more with their thoughts/feelings about stuttering and how it may affect their relationships with partners/friends/and family.


Tannen, D. (1990) You Just Don't Understand. New York: Ballantine Books

Discussion Questions for WWS: Relationships (Love and Platonic) and Family

A. Dependency:

B. Communication: New and Old Relationships: C. Emotional Support D. Motherhood (prospective and current)

Culture and Environment
by Vanna Nicks, MS CCC-SLP.

This presentation is about my experience as an Asian-American coping with my stuttering. I became interested in this topic as a result of my unique perspective from a non-mainstream background. I will discuss cultural and environmental issues related to stuttering. The paper concludes with a list of questions for women who stutter.

People who stutter are among many non-mainstream cultural groups that live in the United States. However, because of their relatively low numbers, they remain a fairly marginalized group. Therefore they struggle to make an impact on American culture. In some ways culture is created by groups of people who share a common history and a set of relatively common behaviors and communication patterns. These creations are then recognized by the society in which they live. The struggle of many minority groups is to have their contributions and experiences represented and recognized by mainstream society. In the last several decades, racial minorities, particularly African-Americans, have caught the attention of mainstream society. Following their relative success, other minority groups have also pursued and achieved recognition of their impact on culture. But as America has grown and become more diversified, challenges of representation have grown as well. People who stutter, who also belong to another minority culture, face additional challenges of confronting and combating everything ranging from outright prejudice to subtle misunderstanding. To begin to understand how to solve these problems, we must realize the importance that culture plays on peoplešs perceptions and treatment of others.

I grew up in Laos, a small landlocked country nestled between Vietnam and Cambodia. We did not suffer the same problems of prejudice and hatred that America was facing. However, itšs a country of people that developed their own cultural likes and dislikes. As a girl I learned that being different can have a debilitating affect of onešs self-esteem. I have stuttered for as long as I can remember. Like most people who stutter, stuttering has at times brought loneliness and self-doubt to my otherwise happy and fulfilling life. Although I grew up in a close-knit family, stuttering was never discussed. In my mind the reason was cultural. In my culture, stuttering is seen as a personal problem. Therefore I was expected to deal with it in a private manner. Because I felt I should do as I was expected and out of fear of shaming the family, I accepted peoplešs ridicule of my stuttering. Since it was acceptable for me to be passive as a girl, I would avoid speaking. In reality, I was using the cultural norm to alleviate my own fear of being judged for my stuttering blocks. When there was a family gathering, I learned to cope with stuttering by playing with marbles or rubber bands instead of interacting with my relatives. In fact, I became quite an accomplished marble player. Soon I was able to beat all the boys in my neighborhood. But inside I was developing an unhealthy sense of self. I felt that it was my duty; it was cultural after all.

As an adult, after suffering through several episodes of self-doubt and learning more and more about stuttering, I began to address my stuttering by going through speech therapy. In addition to working through the physiological and emotional issues associated with stuttering, I realized that I would have to learn how to address another component of the effect my stuttering had on myself and others: my culture. Countless times I would go into a store and have severe blocks, only to be met with a clerk who would grimace, snicker or treat me as if I did not know the English language. Seeing me, I am certain they assumed that I was not from America and was having difficulty speaking English. This is perhaps a reasonable misunderstanding in the society of immigrants in which we live. However, knowing this did not make it any easier for me. I had to learn how to appropriately respond to this type of interaction.

Throughout my therapy, I was able to apply strategies for better communication with my friends and co-workers. However, whenever I visited my family, I could no longer maintain an appropriate eye contact or discuss my stuttering with my family. When my relatives lectured me about the importance of not forgetting our heritage, specifically, our language, I smiled and agreed apologetically for my disfluent speech. In the Laotian culture, it is inappropriate to challenge a relative. In particular it was not acceptable for a female to challenge an elder.

Learning to move back and forth between interaction with my American friends and Asian relatives was difficult to master without feeling guilty that I was not facing my stuttering head on. I often challenged my inability to generalize what I have learned to all settings. Was my sense of shame too deep to tackle with my Asian relatives?

I have learned that acceptance of my stuttering involves constantly revising ideas of effective communication. Fortunately, I have been able to formulate my own coping strategies by incorporating things that Išve learned from speech therapy, the stuttering community, the mainstream culture and my ethnic heritage. I realized that my familyšs lack of discussion about stuttering did not stem from their lack of support, but rather, it was because they did not know how to bring the issue up without feeling they were creating a shameful situation for me. Slowly, I learned to assess the situation and educate my family, friends and strangers of all backgrounds about stuttering. The result of negotiating between cultures has bridged relationships with people of all backgrounds.

As I conclude this paper I must express it is difficult for me to expose my experiences and feelings from my early cultural environment. I was taught to handle my problem alone. It is a private matter. Today, I see the value in what others can learn from my experience. Through this paper I want other women who share my same experience as a person who stutters to know they are not alone.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does your culture view stuttering?
  2. What is your role in your family/culture?
  3. Is seeking support acceptable in your culture?
  4. Do you consider stuttering a personal problem, a family problem, or a community problem?
  5. Does stuttering play a role in your gender expectations in your culture?
  6. Do you have support from your family?
  7. To what degree is stuttering discussed in your family?

Self-Image Issues
by Nora O'Connor, BA, BSW.

Abstract: This paper details my personal experiences with self-image as a woman who stutters. I will discuss the debilitating isolation which stuttering causes, particularly for a minority within a minority. I will detail how stuttering destroyed my personal self-image, and how that self-image was recreated. The paper concludes with a list of questions for women who stutter, and for professionals who treat women who stutter.

Who do you see when you look in the mirror?

Not so long ago, whenever I could summon up the courage to look in the mirror, a frightened, frustrated, angry woman gazed back at me. If anyone unaware of my reality had asked me about my self-image, I would have laughed bitterly. What self-image? I stutter Don't you understand? My "self-image" is non-existent! I don't talk. I don't interact. I don't say how I feel. I don't share what I know. I don't contribute what I might have to offer, lest my secret shame be exposed. What are my goals? Are you serious? A female who stutters -- with goals? That's an oxymoron...

According to the Stuttering Foundation of America, one percent of the population stutters; and four times as many males as females stutter. I am a female who stutters -- a minority within a minority. In her book School Girls, Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap, Peggy Orenstein cites studies showing that girls suffer more from low self-esteem than do boys. Looking back on my adolescence and young adulthood -- and knowing what I now know -- I understand that because I stuttered, my low self-esteem and lack of effective coping skills were "normal," in that they were exactyl what was to be expected. I only wish I hadn't suffered in silence as long as I did.

Indeed, in those days, my only "goal" was to stay quiet, stay hidden, fade out, and wither away. I wasn't up to the task of squaring off against that monster called stuttering. Stuttering was simply too powerful. It sapped every ounce of my strength. In my frustration, exhaustion and isolation, I used to think... it's not supposed to be this way. I'm too good to be silenced like this! I have too much to say. Too much to do. Too much to contribute, to just stand silently on the sidelines of life.

But every time I inched -- warily and unsteadily -- toward trying to become more than I was, reality slapped me flat. Each time I resolved to fight my way through another speaking situation, I emerged from the experience more terrified than before, more reluctant to ever try again.

Yes, I was a girl. And yes, I stuttered. But I wasn't a girl living with stuttering. I was a girl dying with stuttering...

But why? In my earliest memories, it hadn't been this way. How had a minor :difference" in the way I talked evolved into this nightmarish obstacle to life itself? Common sense told me it shouldn't be this way. I wasn't supposed to be cautiously skulking my way through the shadows, terrified to live, and slowly dying on the inside. Where were the roots of this problem called stuttering? And how had I gotten so far away from them? If I could find the answers, perhaps I could begin to build a self-image I could liv with.

To the best of my recollection, I started stuttering when I was seven; nothing more, I just started stuttering. I bounced off certain syllables, experienced some hesitation, and prolonged a little bit more on consonants than the other kids did. But so what? It certainly didn't bother me much.

When did it first become more? The time the waitress mocked me as I was ordering my cheeseburger? Perhaps when a sibling filled in a word for me? Or was it when a classmate laughed at me as I attempted to answer a question? Maybe it was that awful day I couldn't say my name to the cute boy in junior high; or possibly when the operator on the phone hung up on me before I could utter a sound.Whatever had first triggered it, there came a day when I looked in the mirror and realized, to my horror, that I was different from everybody else, and that there seemed to be no turning back.

Once started, the "problem" of my stuttering snowballed with terrible swiftness, until virtually every aspect of my life -- every decision, every move, every breath -- revolved around my disfluencies.

To add to my isolation, the only other people Id ever met who stuttered were all boys. Where were the girls? Was I the only one? I needed friends, family, other stutterers (particularly female), a speech therapist, and a psychotherapist, to help me dig through the rubble of my life to the root of my problem.

The "root" for which I was digging is stuttering. Just baseline stuttering; uncluttered, uncomplicated, unencumbered, unfettered by the chains of guilt, shame, tricks, starters, avoidances, and the layers upon layers of debilitating secondary behaviors which form the suffocating rubble-heap of all those other things, once their novelty has worn off and their effectiveness is expended.

For some women who stutter, the quest back to the root is relatively straightforward. For others, it is an ongoing challenge. The rest can only glimpse the root in others who share the experience of stuttering, and trust that one day they, too, will penetrate the debris piles which have so needlessly bedeviled their lives, get to the root of their stuttering, and wrest control of their lives away from it.

Rome wasn't built in a day; and it wasn't torn down in a day, either. The same applies to a self-image besieged by stuttering -- or, more correctly, by everything that has built up around stuttering. In the end, stuttering itself isn't the problem which destroys our self-image; it's only the root of the problem. But not until the rubble is cleared and the root exposed can we begin to build a self-image which grows healthily, productively, and yes!... happily, with stuttering! Not unhealthily, unhappily, and in self-defeat, against stuttering.

The process is ongoing. Every day, I'm peeling back, pushing away, everything negative that I destructively heaped on top of my stuttering, in an effort to cope with the disorder, and all the emotional pain that developed from my fear and loathing of it, and who I believed it had made me.

Today, my stuttering and who I am are no longer two separate entities. Now they are one in the same, and usually in harmony with each other. True, there are times when the old negative thinking rears its ugly head, and my thoughts threaten again to overpower me. But I no longer fight that voice; I hear what it has to say and then I let it go. It's been a long, challenging quest from where I was to where I am today; and now, at last, when I look in the mirror, I am proud of the self-image I have created as a woman living with stuttering.

Discussion Questions (for the women who stutter)

Discussion Questions (for the professionals)

You can post Questions/comments to any or all of these presenters before October 22, 2002.