Their Right to Be Heard: Young Women's Voices and Cultural Silencing
A few weeks into the first year of my graduate program in American literature, my Race and Gender in Nineteenth-Century American Lit class tackled Lydia Maria Child’s 1824 Hobomok, a work of historical fiction set in colonial New England. The story follows Mary Conant, a white teenager who rejects her Puritan father’s wishes by marrying the eponymous Hobomok, an indigenous native who had been her family’s ally, and she eventually gives birth to their son. During the discussion of the novel, my peers and I, prodded by our professor, spent most of our time considering Mary’s romantic desires, her female friendships, and her transformation from submissive daughter to rebellious spirit who rejects much of her community’s traditional beliefs.
At the end of the class, I walked out of the room, stunned: We can ask positive, constructive questions about women’s bodies, their voices, and their agency (or lack thereof)? That’s allowed? And is it still even a literature course if we do?
Intellectually, I of course knew these questions were welcome in book discussions, but practically, I had never had the experience of asking them, especially in an academic setting. Truly, in the nearly twenty years of my education, no teacher had ever asked, let alone encouraged, these kinds of questions about women, even though there certainly had been opportunities: Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun also Rises, Ophelia in Hamlet, to name only a few.
I imagine that many of my readers over the age of thirty had similar experiences in their high school English classes: a reading list focused on white male authors and white male voices, supplemented with quizzes on literary and stylistic devices and countless regurgitations of the five-paragraph essay in response to a single, teacher-assigned prompt. To be honest, when thinking about these classes, I am surprised I still fell in love with literature.
But more importantly: what a missed opportunity for young people, both men and women, to directly engage with questions about gender and gender stereotyping that are, consciously or not, such an integral part of their daily lived experience. I don’t know that a week has gone by when I haven’t encountered some news article that reflects this reality: Harry Styles on the cover of Vogue in a dress, another viral TikTok about sexist dress codes, Title IX violations and lawsuits, inadequate college sexual assault policies, state legislation banning trans girls from competing on girls’ sports teams, etc.
Literature offers us some answers—and of course even more questions—as well as a safe space to better understand how women and their voices have been discussed, depicted, ignored, and (mis)understood.
The Female Voice
At the all-girls high school where I teach, we call our sophomore year curriculum The Female Voice, a course that narrows the freshmen year focus on coming-of-age stories to that of women coming-of-age and the discovery of their voices. The course is a delight: we spend a year reading texts from Ancient Greece to Victorian England to the Islamic Revolution in Iran and everywhere in between, asking ourselves questions like: What is a female voice? How do writers use literature to reflect on and share their understanding of the world, particularly regarding gender roles? What can we learn about ourselves and our world from a focused study on the way men and women are represented in literature?
Sure, we learn about literary devices and write some five-paragraph essays, but we also frame our reading, writing, and thinking through the lens of gender, giving students a pathway into seeing how literature both shapes and reflects their worlds. Both Kate Schenck and Jessica Bailey, contributors to Her Voice, have taught or are currently teaching this course, and I imagine future posts continuing to detail some of the innovative work being done with this curriculum.
For today, though, I want to talk about silence and the female voice, sharing a unit where students and I more specifically consider the historical, cultural, and political forces that have kept women’s voices out of the public sphere. If my students do not have an understanding of these forces—and this long tradition of silencing—then I am not sure they are fully prepared to grapple with the inevitable obstacles in their own lives as young women or to even understand just how revolutionary it is for them to be the public leaders they are destined to become.
Synthesizing Voices from Our Past and Present
In classicist Mary Beard’s essay “The Public Voice of Women,” she traces the history of women’s silence in Western literature, a history she argues begins with Homer’s The Odyssey when Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, essentially tells his mother Penelope to “shut up,” reminding her that “‘speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all.’” Although Beard chuckles at the image of this young man telling his far more sophisticated mother to close her trap, she acknowledges that the scene is a “nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere.” Equally important, she adds, is the evidence that “an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.”
My students, who read The Odyssey as freshmen, are pretty shocked when they read these first lines; Telemachus’s silencing of Penelope seems so natural that it is not something they had initially questioned. Beard concludes her essay by acknowledging that the process of remedying 2500 years of female silence in Western culture begins with asking ourselves some “bigger questions about the nature and purpose of speech, male or female.” We need, as Beard continues, “some old-fashioned consciousness-raising about what we mean by the voice of authority and how we’ve come to construct it. We need to work that out before we figure out how we modern Penelopes might answer back to our own Telemachuses.”
In other words, we need to ask, to explore, and to discuss what has perpetuated this silence before we can do much about it. So, for our ensuing unit, my students and I respond to Beard’s call, turning it into our essential question and, ultimately, the prompt for the synthesis speech students eventually write: “Why have women been silenced? And what factors contribute to their silence?” Beard says misogyny is too simple of an answer, so my students and I dig deeper, looking for more complex and nuanced reasons.
Over the course of the next few weeks, my students and I analyze a range of texts, both visual and literary, historical and contemporary, keeping the question about women’s silencing at the heart of our analysis. We look at anti-women’s suffrage postcards from the early twentieth century—what I jokingly call the first memes—and students immediately recognize common motifs, including: the infantilization of women, the emasculation of men who have ambitious wives, the vilification of women who desire a public voice, and a heavy dose of romantic paternalization (the restriction of women’s rights based on the premise that they need protection from the evils of the world). We learn about the Bechdel test, a test that has become somewhat of a benchmark for gender equality in movies. To pass, the movie must include these three criteria: (1) there must be at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something other than a man. We apply this test to their favorite films, considering: what impact does a lack of well-developed female characters (or a lack of a female voice, period) have on movie-goers?
We also read a number of short stories; Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” are perennial favorites, dripping with irony and highlighting that women in literature who do discover their voices often end up dead or mentally incapacitated. We consider excerpts from Alice Walker’s nonfiction collection In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens and recognize how women speak in ways that we don’t value, raising additional questions about the intersections of race and gender as silencing mechanisms. On their own, students read an independent memoir about a current woman—Malala Yousafzai, Michelle Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Sonia Sotomayor, etc.—reflecting on how these women have faced obstacles that echo ones we have seen in literature. We create a collaborative vocabulary list that we fill with words we encounter along this journey: agency, intersectionality, feminism (and its first, second, and third waves), gaslighting, self-actualization, ableism, internalized misogyny, etc.
To more clearly see how similar questions and concerns echo across time and space, we then place these texts in conversation with each other during a culminating Socratic Seminar, and students often contribute their own personal experiences with silencing, sharing stories of unwanted cat-calling, obnoxious mansplaining, real fears of not living up to others’ expectations or of getting the answer wrong. From this seminar, students develop a tentative thesis in response to our essential question, arguing at least one way that women have been silenced and then using a variety of texts to support their answer.
Sample student intros and thesis statements:
It only seems appropriate in a unit about women’s silence in the public sphere that students craft a speech that they will read and record for the final assessment, instead of writing an essay that is only for my eyes. For inspiration, we watch some great speeches by young women, including but not limited to Chimamanda Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists,” Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and Emma Watson’s address to the United Nation on behalf of the HeForShe Campaign for gender equality.
The end products are some of my favorite student writing from the year. Because these are speeches, student voices tend to avoid some of the common pitfalls that might otherwise plague their writing: passive voice, overly complicated sentence structures, unnecessary wordiness. And each argument is as distinct as the young woman writing them because the text pairings vary so widely. Students sometimes even ask to integrate texts they have found on their own, everything from the 2017 Time cover for Person of the Year—the Silence Breakers—to films like The Marriage Story to favorite songs or poems.
Prior to this unit, there are always at least a few students in my class who think feminism is a trite, overblown movement we no longer need; these students are so over it, making statements like, “Today women have no obstacles to a public voice.” While I cannot say with certainty that this unit—or their year in the Female Voice—convinces them otherwise, what they do see is that their individual experience is at odds with the collective experience of countless women, both historical and living, and that recent progress in women’s equality, however significant, is a drop in the bucket compared to over 2500 years of entrenched inequality and silencing.
In class next week, my students and I will encounter Beatrice’s famous speech from William Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing: “Oh, that I were a man! . . . . O God, that I were a man!” In this speech, Beatrice laments that because she is a woman, she cannot defend her cousin Hero against scurrilous slanders about her chastity; the men declare Hero has cheated on her fiancé Claudio and that’s that. Hero is toast. Echoes of this scene play out in countless scenarios today when young women are slut-shamed, whether they engaged in the sexual activity or not, or even when women speak out against sexual harassment only to be ignored, laughed at, or vilified. My students love Beatrice; she is super witty, intelligent, and could outsmart any of the cads in Messina. She has a voice, and a strong one at that, but what good is a voice if no one listens?
Sophomores taking this course often joke that the Female Voice course should be required at our brother schools; these young women become so well-versed in gender issues only to encounter young men in their lives who have a relatively superficial understanding. The Beatrice example is case in point: Beatrice has the linguistic tools necessary to defend Hero, but very few in her community recognize her right to speak.
Yes, our brother schools should certainly require far more female-authored texts and/or novels with female protagonists than they currently do--or at the very least, perhaps not laugh at the idea of boys reading Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters, just as we don’t laugh when girls tackle Ernest Hemingway or Herman Melville. If literature is about understanding who we are as humans, then focused questions about gender and gender stereotyping and a reading curriculum rich with male and female voices should be essential. That it still isn’t in so many classrooms is a testament to how far we haven’t come.
At the very least, my students are certainly already light years ahead of where I was at fifteen; they are my young Penelopes ready--god willing--to take on their Telemachuses.
Megan Griffin is a found poet who finds herself poetically searching.
Beard, Mary. “The Public Voice of Women.” The London Review of Books, 20 March 2014.
Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa