An illustration of a megaphone on the ground with a female gender symbol on it.


We Have Always Silenced Women

Whether it’s foretelling political doom or coming forward with sexual-assault allegations, women's voices fall on deaf ears. Will we ever learn not listening to women has dire consequences?

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There is a pull, a fiercely ingrained pull, to mute a woman’s voice until it coos. To press it down until it is as small and sweet as a pastel after-dinner mint. To control it. To silence it. It can be done violently. A clammy hand can wrap around her face and forcibly palm her mouth shut. It can be done playfully. An entitled finger can press gently to her lips, shushing her into subordination. It can be done insidiously. Her voice can be quelled by the incremental, psychological torture of upstanding, affable, misogynists.

And still, she speaks. She tries to be heard. But very—too often—her voice is ignored … or belittled, mocked, critiqued, or shouted down.

In politics, the attempt to extinguish the fire and validity of a woman’s voice is blatant. Why, we wouldn’t be in this predicament we’re in now if we’d listened to Hillary Clinton. She told us in no uncertain terms, throughout her campaign and during the debates, who Donald Trump is, and what kind of president he’d be, and we ignored her—and now we’re paying the price, hoping that today’s indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, and guilty plea by George Papadopoulos will set in motion the beginning of the end of his terrifying administration.

Consider how an empowered, intelligent congresswoman of color speaking with clarity and passion is a mediocre, white patriarchal congressman’s deepest fear realized. The impulse to crawl up to his top bunk and piss his privileged bed is glaring. Since there isn’t a designated white-fear bunk bed in Congress, these men will sometimes leave the room entirely to play a pissy game of Gin. This actually happened. As Representative Ilhan Omar, the nation’s first Somali congressman, was speaking in the Minnesota House about a bill that proposed to crack down on the rights of protestors and voicing her concern that such a law was “an attack on civil rights,” Minnesota House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman noticed some of her male colleagues were not present. She checked the retiring room. They were playing cards. Hortman called them out immediately. She said, “I hate to break up the 100-percent white male card game in the retiring room, but I think this is an important debate.” Which is a great evergreen sentence that should be used all the time.

Even if the canasta-playing dolts had stayed for Rep. Omar’s impassioned speech, they wouldn’t have listened. They would have sat there, lumpily, staring into the sound-proof, oafish abyss they summon whenever a woman starts talking. Rows and rows of Mr. Potato Heads whose detachable ears are conveniently missing.

Another way to not listen to a woman is to interrupt her. Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Maxine Waters are the most recent and public victims of this tactic. As they demonstrate the tenacity and poise it takes to power through perpetual attempts to shut them up and shut them down, they teach us. We must be courageous, persistent, and constantly reclaiming our time from the men who are trying to take it from us. And they will always try to take it from us, even when we are speaking from our graves. The Inception-like horseshit of a man simultaneously shushing Senator Warren and American civil-rights hero Coretta Scott King is infuriating. When will Coretta Scott King’s warning of the vile, insidious white supremacy that boils in the blood of Jefferson Sessions and is woven deep in the fabric of America, be heeded? She warned us in 1986—and those warnings posthumously reemerged in 2017. What form must she shapeshift into to be heard?

If a woman utilizes her voice in a powerful way, or shakes up systems that are firmly in place, she will be subject to an abysmal, hack, silencing-method known as punishment. Jemele Hill, a seasoned journalist and SportsCenter co-host, was suspended from ESPN for vocalizing her necessary and valuable perspective on the peaceful, purposeful, protests taking place in the NFL. She was punished for being a strong, smart, Black woman with a mind and a voice of her own. Twitter suspended artist/activist Rose McGowan’s account for speaking freely and loudly about Harvey Weinstein’s long, putrid, history of sexual assault and harassment, and the insidious, rampant, abuse of women in Hollywood. I guess insulting Ben Affleck is where we’re drawing the line in this apocalyptic shitstorm of a year? As if women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and many, many other marginalized groups or those speaking in support of those groups don’t receive constant, appalling, violent, harassment on twitter. As if the abuse Leslie Jones suffered on Twitter was fine. As if a deranged, subhuman, tyrant isn’t tweeting nuclear war threats from his foul, golden, toilet every other day.

Women have been sounding the alarm on sexism, racism and the emboldening of online hate in the tech and gaming industry for years. Zoë Quinn, a game developer and author of Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate, was the bullseye of the target of Gamergate, an online hate movement ignited by her ex-boyfriend posting a truly evil blogpost that invited droves of anonymous misogynists to viciously harass her online and off. Software engineer and game developer Brianna Wu, who vocalized support for Quinn and became another target for Gamergate, tried to warn the White House of the damage of which this hate-group was capable. “At the height of Gamergate,” she says, “I had two calls with Obama’s White House. And we were very serious, and they told me they were going to get serious about prosecuting Gamergate. And they didn’t.” Gamergate helped empower Milo Yiannopoulis who helped turn Breitbart into an unstoppable, anti-woman, actual Nazi online hate machine, one that propelled a racist, rapist, reality television star into the White House.

Sydette Harry, a writer and cultural critic, commented on Gamergate, “It became about the abuser not the abused. We aren’t actually protecting or defending anything. We aren’t trying to build a world for the most marginalized. We want to sound smart and powerful and able to “defeat men.” Rather than confronting the interlocking kyriarchy and structural points of oppression.”

In the most recent iteration of this, Buzzfeed published a belter of an article linking Milo and Breitbart to mainstream media outlets, at which several self-proclaimed male allies turned out to be trolls in bro’s clothing, who really just wanted to shut feminists the fuck up. Good male allies were outraged, women were unsurprised, and brogressives pontificated about how “we” should not make the same mistake “we” made with Gamergate; that we should take Milo and his lost boys seriously. No problem dude, it will be taken seriously because a man has finally sounded the alarm.

As Quinn points out, prior to Gamergate, online perpetrators had been harassing Black and trans women for years. In June 2014, writer/blogger, I’Nasah Crockett, wrote about the harassment Black women face on social media. She highlighted #YourSlipIsShowing, the Black feminist Twitter counterattack—led by the writer/internet troll slayer Shafiqah Hudson (@sassycrass on twitter)—to 4chan’s #EndFathersDay hoax. Crockett writes, “What we uncovered was an extended year-long plan, where 4chan users were to set up fake accounts where they would pretend to be Black women, women of color, trans women, and otherwise marginalized folks, infiltrate our spaces, study how we operate, then wage hashtag war.” So Black women, again, were sounding the alarm, doing the investigation themselves, finding crucial evidence the mainstream media didn’t catch, and no one gave them the attention, credit, or funding they deserved.

Not listening to women is worldwide and as old as time. According to psychologist Dr. Charlynn Ruan, “The most effective and insidious method of silencing women is through subtle methods, where the woman feels shame about herself as a person rather than identifying it as linked to discrimination against her gender.”

In incidents of sexual harassment, assault, abuse, and violence, a woman’s voice is discounted, diminished, ostracized, and erased. In the classical hell of a “he said, she said” case, the “she said” often disappears altogether because the trauma she has experienced has made it next to impossible to access her words. Or she is intimidated into silence. If she is able to speak, the “she said” turns into a “she lied.” She lied and he tried. He tried to be a good man, why won’t she see that?

A powerful man thriving in a capitalistic, cannibalistic, well-oiled rape culture machine will be given an endless pass. A young, white man with a promising future as a rapist/athlete/head hunter/tiki torch manufacturer will be pitied, coddled, and humanized while she will be dehumanized. Twice. At least twice. Probably closer to hundreds of times. Dehumanized when she is harassed, assaulted, or raped, and dehumanized when she speaks about the abuse she has suffered to rape culture-incubi-gatekeepers who keep eating their ears, shitting them out, and eating them again.

Women who speak about sexual violence are almost never believed or respected as valuable human beings with valid human voices. Read Lucky by Alice Sebold and see what a rape trial is really like. Read Jane Doe’s letter. There is no justice even if they win. They are forced to endure the exhausting, emotionally and psychologically traumatic, twisted circus of a courtroom that protects its abusers and nurtures its rapists. There is no nurturing for victims of sexual violence in or out of the courtroom. There is no empathy. There is no humanity. There is gaslighting, criticism, and the malicious dissection of their character, their choices, their voices, their bodies, and their lives. With the recent response to the Harvey Weinstein’s allegations, we have an opportunity to change the course of the systemic sexism that permeates our culture. Sociologist and founding director of the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, Dr. Shulamit Reinharz spoke about the importance of Unity of Action in giving women voice. “An example of Unity of Action is if a woman is going to get a restraining order in court, she will have a totally different experience if she goes alone versus having a group of women with her. Unity of Action helps give women voice because they feel supported by other women.” She talked about the recent #MeToo movement on the internet as an example of Unity of Action, how one woman’s voice can spark a chorus of women’s voices to implement a cultural shift. #MeToo is a positive, powerful, pair of words that gives women who have experienced sexual harassment and assault an opportunity to share their stories and feel less alone. It is an empathetic and empowering declaration, one that deserves our respect, which is why we must acknowledge that the #MeToo movement was started ten years ago by Tarana Burke, a Black activist. “It wasn’t built to be a viral campaign or a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow,” Burke told Ebony in a statement on Monday. “It was a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.”

Women who have to navigate a system that is trying to tear them down from multiple angles—women of color, LGTBQ women, women with disabilities, sex workers, women living in poverty, women living with mental illness—are often pushed so far to the margins of society their voices aren’t heard past their front door. Past their coffee table. Past their whispers or their screams into a phone call to the police or into the ears of the prisoners who are raping them while prison guards watch. Sometimes they are pushed off the edge of the margins. Their whispers, their screams, their bodies, their spirits, their absolutely worthwhile human lives are thrown into a vast, dark, sea of bodies. The bodies of all of the girls and women we have failed.

American women are expected to lie down on their backs and not sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” not even mouth the words. We are encouraged to warble the tune in the cages of our minds and be so very grateful for the illusory freedom of speech with which we are blessed. The freedom to speak to statues and walls and machines. The freedom to speak to a country, a culture, that has consumed its own ears.

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