Silence Ain’t Actually a Virtue

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize how very lucky I’ve been in regards to family. My mother, for instance, is a loud, brash woman who I grew up calling bossy, and now would be labeled as having leadership skills. There was never a point in my life where, as a woman, I was taught to be silent, to only speak if spoken to. In fact, if you’d asked me not long ago if that was a thing, that women were supposed to stay quiet and not have their own opinions, I would have said no, not anymore, we lost that back in the dark ages when women were required to wear dresses and be housewives. Sadly, I’d be wrong.

For the most part, we don’t silence women explicitly these days, though that still does happen. “Shut up and let the men talk, sweetie,” is still a thing people say. But more and more frequently, women experience a more subtle silencing, not a “don’t talk” but a “no one is listening”. Women can say whatever they want; just don’t expect anyone to pay attention. This idea that women’s words aren’t important manifests itself in so many ways, most of them subtle. I was a sophomore in college, taking a public speaking class, before I ever saw a woman give a speech. My junior year of high school, I took AP Language and Rhetoric. We watched dozens of speeches by a variety of different people. Not a single one was given by a woman. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it, just as I didn’t think anything of the fact that all I was taught about the early women’s rights movement was the names of its two founders and the words Seneca Falls. I watched Hitler give part of a speech before I watched a female speaker. Because Hitler was a well-known master of rhetoric. And apparently women can’t be. Which is patently untrue. In American Rhetorics’s list of the top one hundred speeches, there are over fifteen speeches made by women. While this is not a huge number it is large enough to justify at least one of those speeches making it onto the syllabus in a rhetoric class. But we’d rather pretend these didn’t exist. Keep the women silent, remember? If we don’t listen to women’s speeches, we don’t have to listen when they tell us no, either.

And then we have mass media. Unless your name is Margaret Atwood, if you are a female author writing about women, your book will be almost automatically labeled as “chick lit”, meaning the most you can hope for is mass market appeal. Your novel, no matter how well written, is undeserving of true literary criticism, simply because it is written by a woman, about women. Women writing about women just aren’t good enough for the canon. The exceptions to this rule consist of the aforementioned Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, and The Awakening by Kate Chopin, which ends in the main character’s suicide. Women’s voices, it turns out, don’t really matter except as a trite distraction.

And when you decide enough is enough, when you, as a woman, refuse to be silenced and start challenging the patriarchal view, when you get loud enough that you can’t be ignored anymore, well that’s when the real fun comes in. “Keep your opinions to yourself”. “What do you know, you’re just a woman.” Or, my favorite, the dreaded mansplain, because obviously you’re wrong and if a man just explains to you exactly why in a condescending way, you’ll change your mind. And if none of that works, if you refuse to shut up and get back to your place, that’s when the threats start. If you’re sharing your opinions on the internet, that equals anonymous rape and death threats. If you’re in the workplace, it’s less noticeable, just veiled suggestions to be “less aggressive” or, in cruder terms “less of a bitch” or else. Or else you won’t get promoted. Or else you’ll lose your job.

I’m glad I wasn’t raised to be silent, glad I was told early on that my voice matters, because it means I’m not afraid. I grew up knowing what it was like to be heard, and knowing that I deserve to be. So I’m going to go out there and speak, no matter what. Good luck shutting me up. You see, my mother never told me silence was a virtue.

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