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I read an article earlier today discussing the historical silence of women. It addresses both past and present, in a way, drawing from many of the current issues where women are verbally abused, insulted, and threatened (especially on the internet) if they dare speak up on “men’s matters” — whether that’s politics, video games, comic books, or anything else men have decided is theirs. I certainly know how this feels. I have a bad habit of getting into political discussions on Twitter, which pretty much just puts a target on you for sexual slurs and vague death threats. The article, however, delves into the historiography of women’s voices, and seems to posit that not only have men always attempted to silence women from participating in public speech, but that they have always succeeded in doing so.

L'Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

L’Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

I disagree.

Yes, women have historically been discouraged from public speech and from publication. But there have always been women who spoke. In defiance of their cultures, in defiance of stereotypes, often even in defiance of the law, there have been women who spoke. And what’s even better — they were not, as the article suggests, always derided as freaks or androgynes. You need only look at what was written about Hortensia the Orator, as I discussed a while ago, to prove that.

But you want more? I got more.

  • Sappho was one of the most popular poets of the classical age; Horace named her as “worthy of sacred admiration” and Catullus used her as inspiration for his own works.
  • The women of Sparta were famous throughout the classical world for having razor-sharp wits.
  • Agrippina Major not only went with her husband on campaign (and once held a bridge against an attacking force), but when Germanicus was murdered, she publicly pursued justice for him. It was dangerous and ticked off Emperor Tiberius, but it won her a lot of acclaim from Germanicus’s supporters.
  • Cleopatra spoke somewhere between six and nine languages, depending on the source you’re looking at. She was definitely the first Ptolemy to actually speak Egyptian, and she also spoke Hebrew, which came in damn handy when dealing with her Judean neighbors. Yes, the surviving Roman sources condemn her for it — but of course they would, they were her political enemies. She held the Egyptian throne for a damn long time against incredible odds, and very often she did it because she could talk her way into or out of just about anything.
  • Empress Theodora, a much stronger ruler than her husband, began her career as an actress, but after marrying Justinian, went on to participate in Byzantine government councils, shaping many of the empire’s legal and spiritual policies. Famously, during the Nika riots, she told the men (including her husband), who wanted to flee, that “purple is an excellent color for a shroud”, which shamed them so badly that they stuck around to get things under control. She is a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church. (How there has never been a major movie about this woman, I simply do not understand).
  • Not only was Wu Zetian one of the most impressive rulers of the Tang dynasty, but most of the stories about her, especially in her early, pre-imperial life, start with her standing up and saying something unexpectedly in public. Often suggestions about a better way to do something. And mostly people went, “Wow, that’s pretty impressive, let’s let her try that.”
  • The key diplomat behind China throwing off the rule of the Huns? Also a woman. She was working with her husband, a military strategist, and a scientist, but she seems to have done the bulk of the talking. And yet we’re now not even sure of her name.
  • When Oxford and Cambridge told Mary Sidney Herbert that she couldn’t contribute to their elegies for her own brother, she took herself to a commercial printer in London instead. She went on to publish more of her own works, her brother’s works, and her translations, as well as funding poets and scientists to work in her home.

And those are just a few of my favorite ladies.

That list doesn’t even touch the myriad voices heard by never written down, and so unknown in the modern age. Some times and places have been more friendly than others, to be sure, but social history reveals a lot more than traditional, chronological, top-down history does. Women have always run businesses, participated in politics, and influenced religion — officially or not, sanctioned or not, recognized by textbooks or not.

I whole-heartedly agree that more needs to be done to address the disproportionate representation of male voices in media, and I really enjoy the part of the article examining the words used to describe female speech, particularly those which are dehumanizing. Gendered slurs are a horrific but sort of linguistically fascinating study. In fiction and in life, women have so often been and so often continue to be the targets of belittlement, gaslighting, dismissal, and violence, all in the name of shutting us up.

But erasing the wonderful women who have made their voices heard throughout history does them — and us — a grave disservice, not least because it also erases the reasons it’s sometimes so hard to hear their voices, and ours.

And it isn’t because they weren’t speaking.