Women and words
Women’s words have been the subject of jokes and sayings for centuries. A long-held truism is that women speak more than men. One tabloid declared that this is because women have more of the Foxp2 protein in their brains than men do. Researchers discovered this “language protein” in experiments with rats.
However, a US study indicates that the amount of words a woman uses and the amount of time she gives to speaking depends upon the circumstances and situations. As it does for men. A Time magazine article states that men speak 15,669 words a day and women speak 16,215 – a difference of fewer than 600 words.
Women, words and silence are thus shackled together.
Silence is golden
Poet Thomas Carlyle wrote, “Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of Life, which they are thenceforth to rule.” Carlyle lauded the use of silence as a space in which wonderful ideas and innovations may form that can then be used for amazing good.
A much older quote concerning silence says that “speech is silver, and silence is golden”. Much can be conveyed using words, but silence is more eloquent.
Silencing of women
The 16th century proverb, “silence is a woman’s best garment”, taught that a woman’s words were valued but her silence was. Perhaps there was also an implication that women’s words conveyed little of worth to intelligent conversation.
First century writer, Paul, exhorted early Christian women be silent in the gatherings of believers. This declaration had more to do with orderly behaviour than an indication of the value of what a woman had say. However, over time, this part of one of Paul’s handwritten missives transformed into doctrine around the place of women in the church. Such doctrine morphed into expectation and standards, influencing much of western culture’s attitudes to women and their words.
There is no easy answer to why silence is seen as suitable behaviour for women but is not encouraged in men. Nor is there any intrinsic reason why women’s words are of less value than men’s.
In the six years it took me to complete an honours degree in theology I noticed that very few women theologians were among the recommended reading for the subjects I undertook. I looked at my bookshelf and 100% of the theological writers were men. Only snippets of the words of women were read and only in the realms of less-mainstream arenas such as feminist or liberation theology. Women’s voices were rarely heard in the mainstream.
Does that mean women had nothing to say about theology and life? No. Women’s words and ideas were not valued or heard as reliable voices. This preference for, and the valuing of, the thinking of men continues in academia across all fields.
As I write this I hear the words that have been used against me slide unasked for into my brain.
“What are you banging on about?” “You are so strident!” “Bronwyn, be quiet!”
Although I am a person of words, and a wordsmith, I feel uncertain at times about speaking out my truth out of concern for the sensibilities of others. I feel I will be told to just be quiet. There is a subtle fear that my thoughts and words are of no value, no matter how loudly I say them.
I have experienced such silencing in relationships when a male decides and declares what and when I could share of the details of my life or my interpretation of events. And, in the past, I have complied because confrontation is not something I find easy to do and from which I, like many people, shy away.
But no more.
Finding our voices
The #MeToo media campaign grew out of the determination of women to no longer be silent about their experiences of harassment in the workplace. Women of all ages and from all walks of life posted their experiences online. Australian Rosie Batty is an active campaigner to reduce and eventually eliminate violence against women. She was thrust into this position after her ex-husband killed their son in retaliation against her. The White Ribbon movement against domestic violence is supported by both men and women. It ensures that our society moves towards being a safer place for all people.
Women are collectively not only finding their voices but choosing to use them. They are no longer are they happy to sit in the silence space, a space that has been used by men (and this is a generalisation I recognise) to keep some measure of control. Women’s words are now powerfully spoken and heard.
No more silence
Silencing of any human being is a such a negative thing.
Silencing robs collective wisdom and knowledge of unique perspectives and understandings. It devalues the thoughts and ideas of 50% of the population. Silencing assumes that one half of the population is of less intrinsic worth than the other half.
Happily, both men and women are seeing the benefits of women finding and using their voices. Both men and women are supporting and calling for change in arenas as diverse as business and politics, academia and not-for-profit. Men and women are valuing women’s words.
Silence is golden if…
Silence is golden if it used as a space for reflection. It can be golden if it fosters innovation and the development of new ideas. Silence is beautiful if it is a space both men and women inhabit.
Silence is only golden if it is a place of freedom and not of confinement.
Finding your voice
Are you a woman struggling to find your voice? Do you know that you have things to say but are not sure about how to go about it? Would you like to explore ways in which your voice can be found and heard?
Then drop your details below and I’ll get back to you. I’ve done (and continue to do) this journey of finding my voice and speaking my truth. I would love to share with you the strengths I’ve developed.
They can be yours as well.