The Sound of Silence

Women will starve in silence until new stories are created which confer on them the power of naming themselves.
— Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar

I am so damn tired of holding my tongue. It’s an impulse almost as natural as breathing for me, but with the opposite effect. Breathing keeps me alive. Shutting down my own voice is killing my soul.

The sound of silence. That’s what it sounds like on the outside. On the inside, it’s something else entirely. There are ideas, opinions, suggestions floating around, all mixed up with fear and anxiety about whether I’m smart enough or qualified enough to have those ideas, opinions and suggestions – all of it teeming in an unholy pool of frustration and anger at why this is such a common occurrence for me.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. And I offer credit (or blame), at least in part, to my legacy as a woman.

A friend and I recently visited the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco for an exhibit called “Worshipping Women: Power and Devotion in Indian Painting.”

 One of a handful of paintings from the "Worshipping Women" exhibit. 

One of a handful of paintings from the "Worshipping Women" exhibit. 

The exhibit turned out to not really be an exhibit at all, only a handful of paintings along one short wall. The gallery surrounding it had a few sculptures of Hindu Goddesses, but overall I was disappointed.  I had expected more.

Museums, by nature, are quiet places. But as we walked from one gallery to the next, echoing in the silence I could hear the noise of men – the men who created the art, the men depicted in the sculptures, the men explaining the significance of the art. The silence of women was deafening.

Of course there are plenty of amazing women curating art collections and creating art today. But walking through the museum reminded me that the world of art, like all other aspects of our culture, is predominantly a world of men – offering us memorials to their ambitions, their faith, their achievements.  And I’m a little tired of hearing from them.

Where are the historical stories of women? I mean the real ones - not the stories told by men about women’s beauty or wickedness, but the stories told by women, about women?

 What would Eve say if she could speak for herself?

What would Eve say if she could speak for herself?

History is one long tale of men who have achieved dominion over the earth, other species, and other human beings. History would have us believe that women haven’t done much of anything for the last 2,000 years, or at least nothing that’s worth talking about. I call bullshit.

What history does give us is a long, mostly unspoken story of silencing the voices of women. And what have we, as women, learned from it? How to shut up, look pretty and keep the peace.

A long time ago, this was no joke. Women could and did die for going against the grain. And we're lucky here - in a lot of other places around the world, they still do. But we've also learned our survival strategies. Since women couldn’t own property, get an education or have a job, we linked ourselves with powerful men to keep ourselves and our children alive (those of us who could, anyway, which was mainly white women here in the US). And yes, we learned how to hold our tongues.

 The original women's march. 

The original women's march. 

So much has changed in the 100+ years since the women’s suffrage movement first began. And here I still am, agonizing over whether my words might call too much attention, especially the kind I don’t want.

We don’t have to look to ancient history to see the repercussions of women speaking up. We can see plenty of it today. We get insulted. We get mocked. We get formally silenced by the Senate.

At the same time, today we have more freedom and choice than in all of recorded history.  It’s a tricky situation: we’re probably not going to get killed for speaking up, but if we’re loud enough we’ll definitely see consequences. And I’m guessing most women, myself included, don’t want to be labeled an ignorant cunt for sharing our thoughts on the internet.

 No one wants to receive this kind of message.

No one wants to receive this kind of message.

In the days leading up to the 2016 election, I was fascinated by Pantsuit Nation. When I joined the group there were already 250,000 members, and by Election Day the number had grown to 3 million people. It was (and still is) made up of mostly female members, and by the looks of the postings I see, the majority of members are white.   

It’s also a private group, and this seemed of utmost importance prior to the election. I saw posts from many, many women in so-called red states who felt that they could not be open about their support of our first major party female presidential candidate. I’m sure they all had reasons, every one of which probably felt incredibly valid. But I do wonder about the power of those voices, all held in check by women themselves. What might have happened if those voices had been heard more broadly? What if my own voice had been louder and more assertive?

Fast forward to today, which is International Women’s Day. We’re 50 percent of the world population and we get a whole day to ourselves – wahoo! Sarcasm aside, the organizers of the Women’s March have called for an international strike to demonstrate the impact women have on the workforce and the economy. They’ve suggested we refrain from work today, paid or unpaid.

 We get a whole day just for ourselves! We all look like this in profile, too.

We get a whole day just for ourselves! We all look like this in profile, too.

I suppose my writing could be considered “work.” But given our history, silencing my voice today seems like the wrong thing to do. So I’ll honor all the women around the world who are participating in this strike by speaking up, even when it still feels scary as hell.  

I start by muffling the fears of my female ancestors that hum in my veins, telling me to keep myself small and not attract attention. In my mind, I thank them for their courage and sacrifices, and acknowledge that they’re trying to keep me safe…and then I ignore them and hit “publish” anyway.