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CONVERSATION (kòn´ver-sâ´shen) noun
1. A spoken exchange of thoughts, opinions, and feelings; a talk.
2. An informal discussion of a matter by representatives of governments, institutions, or organizations.

So goes the definition according to the American Heritage Dictionary. I've been thinking about conversation a lot lately because my sister, Susan Partnow, and her friend, the noted author Vicki Robin, have co-created a non-profit called "Let's Talk America" (which can be found on-line at www.LetsTalkAmerica.org). Their mission is to get American citizens talking with one another about national issues across party lines. Reading all the materials she's submitted to me in rough draft for my own take on it has been very stimulating. It made me realize how often what we call "conversation" is not truly an "exchange of thoughts, opinions, and feelings" but more a litany of "what I've been doing lately/what you've been doing lately" and "can you believe what they said or did?" The former is really a way of playing catch-up with friends and associates and the latter a way of finding comfort in the sympathies of others. Neither is actually a conversation.

I thought it would be interesting to see what rich minds of the women I've been researching all these years had to say about conversation. Perhaps it will stimulate you to have some genuine conversations with others.

In sisterhood, Elaine Bernstein Partnow, Editor


One never discusses anything with anybody who can understand, one discusses things with people who cannot understand.
Gertrude Stein(1874-1946), American writer, playwright, art collector, librettist, who lived in France most of her professional life; she was famously partnered with Alice B. Toklas; from Everybody's Autobiography, 1937

There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.
Rebecca West (1892-1983), Irish/English suffragist, literary critic, novelist, and journalist; she was the companion of, and parent with, H. G. Wells (1866-1946, writer) and companion of Anthony W- (author, critic); awarded the Crown of the British Empire, 1959; from There Is No Conversation, 1935

In Victor's life, monotony and boredom had nothing to do with one another. He repeated his repertoire so often that even from miles away, Clara could follow his conversation with anyone who happened to be sitting next to him.
Luisa Valenzuela (1938- ), Argentenian/American scriptwriter, lecturer, journalist, novelist; from Clara in Thirteen Short Stories and a Novel by Luisa Valenzuela; Hortense Carpenter & J. Jorge Castello, trs., 1976

Nobody is such a fool as to moider [waste] away his time in the slipslop conversation of a pack of women.
Hester Lucy Stanhope (1776-1839), English/Syrian astrologer, traveler; a.k.a. White Queen of the Desert; daughter Charles, 3rd earl of Stanhope (inventor); Quoted in Little Memoirs of the Nineteenth Century by George Paston, 1902

I happen to disagree with the well-entrenched theory that the art of conversation is merely the art of being a good listener. Such advice invites people to be cynical with one another and full of fake; when a conversation becomes a monologue, poked along with tiny cattle-prod questions, it isn't a conversation any more.
Barbara Walters (1931- ), American journalist, television producer, television commentator, writer; won an Emmy; from How to Talk with Practically Anybody About Practically Anything, 1970

Don't confuse being stimulating with being blunt. Ibid.

He talked and talked because he didn't know what to say.
Dacia Maraini 1936- ), Italian feminist, political activist, writer, playwright, poet; wife of Alberto Moravio (d. 1990; neé Pincherle; fiction writer); founder, La Maddalena (feminist theater), Rome, 1972; from The Holiday, 1962

One must talk. That's how it is. One must.
Marguerite Duras (1914-1996), Indochinese/French playwright, TV & screen writer, novelist; married to Robert Antelme (1; writer); Dionys Moscolo (2; philosopher and critic); Prix Jean Cocteau; Grand Prix and Académie du Cinema (1992); Prix Goncourt (1984); from The Vice-Consul, Eileen Ellenbogen, tr., 1966

It is not what we learn in conversation that enriches us. It is the elation that comes of swift contact with tingling currents of thought.
Agnes Repplier (1858-1950), American writer, critic, social; from "The Luxury of Conversation," Compromises, 1904

One has to grow up with good talk in order to form the habit of it.
Helen Hayes (1900-1992), American writer, actor; married to Charles MacArthur (1895-1956; playwright); mother of James MacArthur (1937- ; actor); Academy Award, 1931, 1932, 1970; Tony Award, 1947, 1958, 1980 for "distinguished lifetime achievement"; Emmy Award, 1952; Grammy Award, 1977; from A Gift of Life, with Lewis Funke, 1965

And while she wondered at all the things civilization can teach a woman to endure, she was able to take Mrs. Abbott's departing hand, and to watch Mrs. Abbott walk out of a door into the temporary silence civilization would require of her until she found another acquaintance on whom her conversation could pour as if she were emerging from a year and a day of solitary confinement.
Frances Newman (1883?-1928), American writer, librarian; from Dead Lovers Are Faithful Lovers, 1928

For the first time, she realised that conversation might have been entirely satisfactory if women had been allowed to admit they understood the limited number of subjects men were interested in, and she was so excited by her idea that she almost committed the social crime of allowing a conversation to pause.
Ibid., from The Hard-Boiled Virgin, 1926

He knew that his conversation had the power to fascinate, and he used it like a prodigal man who knew he had an everlasting fortune.
Princess Mathilde (1820-1904), French writer; niece of Napoleon I (1729-1821; Emperor of France, 1804-14); Quoted in Le Moniteur Universelle, 15 October 1869

He always said she was smart, but their conversations were a mined field in which at any moment she might make the wrong verbal move and find her ignorance exploding in her face.
Judith Rossner (1935- ), American writer; from Looking for Mr. Goodbar, 1975

Given the cultural barriers to intersex conversation, the amazing thing is that we would even expect women and men to have anything to say to each other for more than ten minutes at a stretch. The barriers are ancient -- perhaps rooted, as some paleontologist may soon discover, in the contrast between the occasional guttural utterances exchanged in male hunting bands and the extended discussions characteristic of female food-gathering groups.
Barbara Ehrenreich (1941 ), American columnist, author; Guggenheim, 1987; from The Worst Years of Our Lives, 1991

Johnson's conversation was by far much too strong for a person accustomed to obsequiousness and flattery; it was mustard in a young child's mouth.
Hester Lynch Piozzi (1741-1821), Welsh/English author; married to Henry Thrale (1) and Gabriel P. (2); friend of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84; author, lexicographer); quoted in Life of Samuel Johnson* by James Boswell, 1791 (*1709-1794, British writer and lexicographer)

Conversation may be compared to a lyre with seven chords -- philosophy, art, poetry, politics, love, scandal, and the weather.
Anna Brownwell Jameson (1794-1860), Irish/English art critic, author; daughter of Denis Murphy (?-1842; miniature painter); from Conversations, Visits and Sketches at Home and Abroad; With Tales and Miscellanies, 1834

BELLAIR. We can talk of Murder, Theft, and Treason, without blushing: and surely there's nothing a-kin to Love that's half so wicked.
Elizabeth Cooper (fl. 1730s), English playwright, anthologist; from The Rival Widows; or, Fair Libertine, 1735

That silence is one of the great arts of conversation is allowed by Cicero* himself, who says, there is not only an art, but even an eloquence in it.
Hannah More (1745-1833), English philanthropist, reformer, writer; a.k.a. The Laureate of the Bluestockings, Stella; pseudonym, Will Chip; from "Thoughts on Conversation," Essays on Various Subjects, 1856

There were two objects of conversation; one was the food they were eating and the other was the food they had eaten at other times.
Jean Stafford (1915-1979), American writer; married to Robert Lowell (1; 1917-77, poet), Oliver Jensen (2; writer) and A. J. Liebling (3; writer); Pulitzer Prize, 1970; from "Maggie Meriwether's Rich Experience," The Innocents Abroad, from The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, 1969

'Tis social converse, animates the soul.
Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1758), American historian, playwright, poet; sister of James Otis (1725-83; Revolution leader, publicist), married to Gen. James W- (member, Massachusetts legislature); from "To Fidelio,* Long Absent on the Great Public Cause, which Agitates All America," St. 1 (1776), Miscellaneous Poems, n.d. (*Pseudonym of James Warren, her husband, who fought in the Revolutionary War.)

OLIVIA. He has a very pretty kind of conversation; 'tis like a parenthesis.
DON CAESAR. Like a parenthesis!
OLIVIA. Yes, it might be all left out, and never missed.
Hannah Cowley (1743-1809), English playwright, poet; from A Bold Stroke for a Husband, 1784

"Saloons* [sic] exist no longer; conversation has ceased; good taste has disappeared with it, and mind has lost all its influences."
Virginie Ancelot ((1792-1875), French novelist, dramatist; from Gabrielle, 1840 (*Ref. the French term salons, social gatherings of distinguished guests.)

But I am a-eppisodin' and a-eppisodin' to a length and depth almost onprecedented and onheard of -- and to resoom and go on.
Marietta Holley (1836?-1926), American humorist, writer; from Samantha at the World's Fair, 1893

That amenity which the French have developed into a great art . . . conversation.
Cornelia Otis Skinner (1901-1979), American entertainer, actor, writer; d. Otis S- (1857-?, actor); from Elegant Wits and Great Horizontals, 1962

The moral disposition of the age appears in the refinement of conversation.
Mary Somerville (1780-1872), Scottish translator, mathematician, astronomer, physical geographer; first women's college at Oxford University was funded by and named after her; from"Influence of Christianity," Physical Geography, 1848

The Devil often places himself upon the tongues of creatures, causing them to chatter nonsensically.
Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), Italian mystic, diplomat; patron saint of the Dominicans; from The Dialogue of the Seraphic Virgin Catherine of Siena, Algar Thorold, ed. and tr., 1896

Click, clack, click, clack, went their conversation, like so many knitting-needles, purl, plain, purl, plain, achieving a complex pattern of references, cross-references, Christian names, nicknames, and fleeting allusions.
Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), English writer; from The Edwardians, 1930

Conversation is to works what the flower is to the fruit. A godly conversation shelters and cherishes the new-born spirit of virtue, as the flower does the fruit from the cold, chill atmosphere, of a heartless world; and the beauty of holiness expanding in conversation, gives rational anticipation of nobleminded principles ripening into the richest fruits of good works.
Margaret Mercer (1791-1846), American philanthropist, educator, abolitionist; from Ethics, n.d.

Buffet, ball, banquet, quilting bee,
Wherever conversation's flowing,
Why must I feel it falls on me
To keep things going?
Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978), American writer, poet, humorist; Pulitzer, 1961; from"Reflections at Dawn," Times Three: 1932-1960, 1960

So we go, so little knowing what we touch and what touches us as we talk! We drop out a common piece of news, "Mr. So-and-so is dead, Miss Such-a-one is married, such a ship has sailed," and lo, on our right hand or on our left, some heart has sunk under the news silently -- gone down in the great ocean of Fate, without even a bubble rising to tell its drowning pang. And this -- God help us! -- is what we call living!
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), American writer, social critic; sister of Henry Ward B- (1813- 87; clergyman, editor, writer); great-aunt of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935, American writer and social critic); Hall of Fame, 1910; from The Minister's Wooing, 1859

TOPER. Yesterday I carried to wait on a Relation of ours that has a Parrot, and whilst I was discoursing about some private Business, she converted the Bird, and now it talks of nothing but the Light of the Spirit, and the Inward man.
Susanna Centlivre (1667/69?-1723), Irish/English playwright, actor; married to Joseph C-, Yeoman of the Mouth to Queen Anne (i.e., the cook); from The Beau's Duel, 1702

The conversation of friends is the nearest approach we can make to heaven while we live in these tabernacles of clay; so it is in a temporal sense also, the most pleasant and the most profitable improvement we can make of the time we are to spend on earth.
Rachel Russell (1636-1723), English letter writer; married to Vaughn (1), Lord William R- (2); from Letters, c. 1793

It is, I think, a good deal owing to the preponderance of the commercial element in Society that conversation has sunk to its present dull level of conventional chatter.
Dorothy Nevill (1826-1913), English writer, hostess; from The Reminiscences of Lady Dorothy Nevill, 1907

There is nothing so dangerous for anyone who has something to hide as conversation! . . . A human being, Hastings, cannot resist the opportunity to reveal himself and express his personality which conversation gives him. Every time he will give himself away.
Agatha Christie (1891-1975), English novelist, playwright; mystery writer outsold only by Shakespeare & Bible; from The ABC Murders, 1936

The most welcome guest in society will ever be the one to whose mind everything is a suggestion, and whose words suggest something to everybody.
Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), American writer, editor, poet; first woman magazine editor in U.S.; established Thanksgiving as national holiday; established Mount Vernon as national shrine; quoted in Godey's Lady's Book, c. 1868

His conversation was marked by its happy abundance.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851), English author; daughter Mary W-* (1759-1797; writer and feminist) and William Godwin (1756-1836; writer, political theorist), w. Percy Bysshe S- (1792-1822, poet); niece Hannah Godwin (fl. 1790s; writer); from Preface to Collected Edition of Shelley, 1839

Always he had wanted to tell somebody about his life, but when he had tried, his confidante had looked at him.
Zona Gale (1874-1938), American writer; Pulitzer, 1921; from"Evening," The Book Man, 1925

Conversation succeeds conversation,
Until there's nothing left to talk about
Except truth, the perennial monologue,
And no talker to dispute it but itself.
Laura [Jackson] Riding (1901-1991), American poet, writer, literary critic; Guggenheim, 1973; NEA, 1979; from "The Talking World," Collected Poems, 1938

Ideal conversation must be an exchange of thought, and not, as many of those who worry most about their shortcomings believe, an eloquent exhibition of wit or oratory.
Emily Post (1873-1960), American society leader, writer; trendsetter of manners; from Etiquette, 1922

Just when I most needed important conversation, a sniff of the man-wide world, that is, at least one brainy companion who could translate my friendly language into his tongue of undying carnal love, I was forced to lounge in our neighborhood park, surrounded by children.
Grace Paley (1922- ), American writer; Guggenheim 1961; NEA 1987; from Just As I Thought, 1998

In these days, when a dialogue between parents and their children has become possibleYit is necessary that in this dialogue we show ourselves for what we are, imperfect, in the hope that our children will not resemble us but be stronger and better than us.
Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991), Italian writer, politician, playwright; married to Leone G- (1; d. 1944, Russian intellectual and hero of the Resistance); Gabriel Boldine (2); Premio Strega, 1964; from The Little Virtues, Dick Davis, tr., 1985

I say you hurt me. You say I scorned you. We say we care. It begins. The conversation begins.
Louise Bernikow (1940- ), American poet

Return to "Women of Wisdom" Main Page

Elaine Bernstein Partnow is the editor of "Women of Wisdom," and she is a perfect fit for this task. Compiler of the noted work The Quotable Woman, The First 5,000 Years, Elaine started working on the first edition, way back in 1974, she was making the transition from actor to writer. Now in its 5th edition. The Quotable Woman has become the standard book of quotations for women's studies programs and organizations all over the English-speaking world. She also wrote The Female Dramatist a few years back, and has just came out with a new collection, The Quotable Jewish Woman, Wisdom, Inspiration and Humor from the Mind and Heart. Elaine has marveled at how her work in women's history has changed who she is and how she is. Ever eager to share that experience with others, she merged her two passions - acting and women's studies - and began, in 1984, to present living history portraits of notable women to civic and educational institutions. To date she has given more than 400 such presentations to upwards of 50,000 people, not only across the U.S.A., but in Mexico and even China! You can find out more about Elaine by visiting her web site: www.TheQuotableWoman.com.


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