The reprimanding tone of voice used by Senator Mitch McConnell when he said: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” as reasoning to justify his attempt to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren hit me like a thump to the chest. It was as if he were reprimanding a disobedient child and it is a kind of posturing that has become all too familiar with our new president leading by example. I expected the rhetoric and dismissal about the protests and our pink hats. I expected the anti-female jokes that always come to the surface when women gather and demand to have their voices heard. I even expected the surprise at our audacity not to just go home and be silent like we were told. But what I am not willing to accept is the blatant misogynistic posturing and language that has been used throughout a contentious campaign and first weeks of this presidency. And since the white house is leading the charge, it becomes even more disturbing. Aside from the fact that they seem blatantly unaware of the problem this kind of speech creates, it is even more infuriating because so many of us feel that we have already fought this battle. Maybe I was naïve. Maybe I was in denial. But I have now realized just how far we have fallen back into an abyss we struggled so hard to climb out of on so many levels.
Janet Cameron, in her article, Mary Beard on the Silencing of Women’s Voices, discusses Beard’s idea 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.” Cameron goes on to give examples from Beard’s video series Oh Do Shut Up Dear of female characters in literature being routinely silenced:
“ In Homer’s The Odyssey, written around three thousand years ago, Telemachus tells his mother Penelope: ‘Go back to your quarters…speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all, for mine is the power of the household.’
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses Zeus turns one female character into a cow so she can only “moo” and Zeus’ wife, Hera, punishes another, Echo, by not allowing her control over her own voice. She can only repeat the words of others.”
Cameron also notes that while “…western culture cannot entirely place the blame on the Greeks and the Romans for our present-day gendered speaking, their culture, rule and conventions remain with us…authority figures from the nineteenth century were taught in this way and today we still experience this subversive influence.”
Or, as she quotes Beard: “The modern techniques of rhetoric and persuasion formulated in the renaissance were drawn explicitly from ancient speeches and handbooks.”
So it begins to feel overwhelming and as if time itself is against us. I mean, who can fight all the way back three thousand years? Evidently women just don’t understand that we are supposed to shut-up. But what if what Beard says is true, that the men of today have been instructed in this way as far back as the ancient Greeks, to the Romans and ad nauseam throughout history to the present configuration in the White House where the posturing has become so sanctimonious that they aren’t even hiding it anymore? History continues to try to prove this point that men feel they alone have a right to speak and that it is women who are creating the problem by not taking their silent place behind them. So, if history itself keeps telling us that we as women are to be silent, I wonder why it is that we just don’t listen?
I think we always knew we had something important to say but don’t always feel the urgent need to say it. And I don’t mean to trivialize our struggles but I do understand how easily we can become distracted with our day-to-day lives and it sometimes takes something major to wake us up to action. And unfortunately history became so full of its male conquering self that it wasn’t paying much attention to the societal advances women were forging for themselves and their children. It somehow forgot that while men where off pillaging and campaigning through the crusades and the inquisitions and generally just trying to overpower and conquer everything in their path it was actually the women who ran things. We kept the children fed, clothed and educated. We kept the farms and the homesteads and the households running in the absence of men at war. While we were being told to tend to the women’s business of cooking and cleaning, we understood that there is a vast difference between a subservient view of cooking and cleaning and the burden of clothing and feeding and educating.
Look around, every day we see more and more women balancing jobs, raising families on their own and trying to get an education to better themselves so they can reach above the poverty line. The assumption that working women merely supplement the income of a household has become as archaic as the thought that only men should speak. Increasingly we see women running single parent households with everything on their shoulders. Women have always and still are working hard to keep their families afloat. Many times women hold down two or three jobs because the pay from just one won’t sustain, clothe and feed an entire family. So often extra jobs are needed because we still don’t have a child support system that actually works and so many women go without the court ordered child support desperately needed for their children. Increasingly we have driven women with children in single parent households down below the poverty line and then criticize them for needing assistance that has to come from somewhere because the entire system has failed. And after all that—we are still being told to sit down and remain silent.
I applaud the sheer tenacity of Elizabeth Warren refusing to be silenced and taking her story to the news media. I also applaud the senators who stood up the next day and read the very same letter of testimony by Coretta Scot King (without, I might add, being silenced) and for everyone getting the message out that this is the kind of ridiculous archaic rhetoric we are still fighting in our government.
But I really celebrate the women who have picked up banners, created educational campaigns and bombarded the streets refusing to be silenced. I’m excited about the fact that people took to social media and flooded the feeds with #SilencingLizWarren and #LetLizSpeak hashtags. I love that “Nevertheless, She Persisted” has become a campaign slogan and a source of funding for Planned Parenthood and other organizations. And it just gave me an enormous feeling of satisfaction that the “pussy hat” took back a guttural term meant to demean women and made it a point to stand on that was strong enough to organize us and become a Time Magazine Cover. I am proud that we are taking these conceited insults and turning them into slogans that are galvanizing and unifying our voices in a positive way.
I’m not naïve enough to believe we will stop this all today or tomorrow or even in a year. History has proven that this misogynistic dragon doesn’t die easily. But what I do have faith in is that we, as strong women, will continue to fight to have our voices heard. We know that we cannot stop because if we stop there is no one but ourselves to speak for us.
We will not be silenced.
We will continue, nonetheless, to persist.
Joan Hanna has published poetry, creative nonfiction, fiction, book reviews and essays in various online and print journals. Hanna’s first poetry chapbook, Threads, was named a finalist in the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Both Threads and her second chapbook, The Miracle of Mercury, are available through Finishing Line Press. Hanna has previously served as Assistant Managing Editor for River Teeth, Assistant Editor for rkvry Quarterly Literary Journal, Managing Editor for Poets’ Quarterly and Senior Editor at Glassworks. Hanna holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and teaches creative writing at Rowan University. You can follow her personal blog at Writing Through Quicksand.