Why has women's truth always been whispered, and what do we do now that we finally have a megaphone?
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“My name is June,” Elisabeth Moss’s handmaid whispers with a timid smile from under her character’s signature white bonnet to another handmaid at the grocery store. “Nice to meet you.”
This moment in “After,” last week’s episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, is familiar to any woman who has felt the strength of whispered sisterhood. While shopping in silence at the wordless grocery store, June is reunited with handmaid Emily (Alexis Bledel), who had been cast out to the toxic Colonies among the “Unwomen.” June is finally able to share her real first name, breaking through the dehumanizing nomenclature that sees all handmaids as the property of the man who currently rapes them monthly in the name of procreation. In the wake of so many handmaids dying in a bombing without anyone knowing their true names, June is emboldened to stealthily speak her name with another handmaid, under the watchful eye of the guards.
One after another, the handmaids whisper their names aloud to one another, “meeting” each other, in some sense, for the first time. As the music swells in this rare moment of victory, the audience realizes that, even if these women die, at least there will be someone who knows their name. They are all responsible for one another’s stories and, like the book people of dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, as long as they live, they will carry each other’s stories with them; in that way, the lives these women have lived will never die.
The Handmaid’s Tale scene echoes a popular children’s game—a girl’s game, really, though boys do participate—sometimes called Whisper Down the Lane, or Telephone. Part of the hilarity of the game is in seeing how the story changes with time and, though many children play with the intention of maintaining the integrity of the message, of course there’s often one kid who blatantly changes the message—to “I just farted” or something similarly bawdy by childhood standards. Aside from being entertaining, the game serves as a lesson in the unreliability of rumors and gossip. But what about the whispers that keep us safe? And what if you were only ever allowed to whisper, for your whole life and your grandmother’s life, and her grandmother’s?
Women’s knowledge has long been whispered and thus doubted. Whether it’s the specifics of self-defense (walk with keys between your knuckles, cover your drink at all times, don’t wear earbuds or a ponytail), or the secrets of our bodies (the existence of periods, remedies for cramps, how to keep your thighs from chafing), so much of the communal knowledge of women is out of sight and, therefore, for men and boys, out of mind. Whether it’s because we know our stories and our icky bodies aren’t welcome, or because we fear the ramifications of being heard instead of merely seen, girls learn young that certain topics are best left at a whisper, if given a voice at all.
These whispers take many forms. In the #MeToo era, talk of whisper networks inevitably include the Shitty Media Men list, a digital version of the interpersonal whisper networks that have long served as a desperate, inadequate—yet all the while necessary—attempt for women to protect ourselves in a society that has no interest in our protection. But before Google Docs and Slack chats, there was the broken stair, and women giving each other a heads-up on the sly, in the desperate hope that it can prevent someone else from getting hurt, since it’s clear that nothing else will work.
Stretching back through history, we can find women’s stories embedded in cookbooks, quilts, parables, and expressions, all handed down from mother to daughter, spread between neighbors and friends. Margaret Atwood likes to say that she didn’t make anything up for The Handmaid’s Tale—it all comes from history. So much of the erasure of humanity from the book and the show comes from the dehumanization of slaves: no fiction necessary. The eradication of a one’s name, history, language, religion and culture is painfully real for Black women, as is the systemic rape and removal of children. For a large swath of the American population, the only way to keep their collective identity alive was through oral tradition, willing their culture into memory by putting it into story and song.
A Name of One’s Own
The erasure of our histories is deeply ingrained, even in modern life, and so the corresponding resistance must be covert. Women still change their last names at remarkably high rates in the United States. One of the arguments against women keeping their own name is the difficulty it presents to genealogy. It’s rather absurd how often people make this argument with no consideration for the obvious impact it has on the genealogy of women. Even among progressive circles, the importance of matrilineal genealogy is not so much an afterthought as it is completely beyond the realm of contemplation.
In an effort to keep some part of their name—their self, their heritage—with them, women give their so-called maiden names to their sons as a middle name or to their daughters as a first name. This is how we wound up with a generation of people with last names as first names, like Mackenzie and Addison. My own mother, like so many others, moved her last name to her middle name so she could have both. As a child, I felt bad for the middle name that was dropped to accommodate her last name, which was bumped to make room for my father’s name. When the Catholic rite of Confirmation presented me with an opportunity to take on a new name, I jumped at the chance to resurrect Irene, carrying my mother’s discarded middle name forward for another generation. A small gesture, but one I knew was imperative as soon as the idea entered my mind.
Oral histories are how we know when gender-based violence plagues one generation after another, as Jessica Valenti wrote in her memoir, Sex Object. They’re how we know about those same women’s strength and defiance, as Margaret Atwood herself learned in childhood stories her grandmother told of their long-ago ancestor, a woman hanged as a witch who lived to tell the tale, and even inspired Atwood to write The Handmaid’s Tale and a poem about her. It’s how we preserve more than mere birth, death, and census data about the women who made us who we are. Someday, perhaps the digital whispers of our social media lives will be held up as primary sources of daily life.
The more I keep an ear to the ground and ask the right questions, the more stories I hear from the women in my own life, the kinds of stories that we know society doesn’t want to hear. The matriarch who wouldn’t take communion until her abusive former-husband died, the women institutionalized because they struggled to cope with life after giving birth, the men who put up a kindly face but were mean drunks in private. Miscarriages, abusive husbands, lecherous bosses, and so many promising careers and impressive educations left on the table, while one daughter, sister, aunt or niece after another gave up her life to care for her family, work at the mill, or marry someone advantageous. All the while, the brothers and sons moved forward, continuing to achieve.
Women’s knowledge has long been ignored, but rarely is it forgotten—you just have to ask the right person. Stories of women like NASA’s human computers go untold in the mainstream. Meanwhile, the audacious truth of Rosa Parks’s activism and Harriet Tubman’s career as a spy are softened until palatable. History recasts queer women as sad, straight, spinster aunts. But women keep the truth alive, passing the real stories among ourselves.
Women in my own family make sure my generation knows about the skills of our foremothers. “She was a teacher, you know, for years.” “She was valedictorian, the very top of her class.” “She kept the books. In another time, she might have been an accountant.” These details keep me from flattening the women who came before me into sweet, saintly, boring grandmothers. They were bright, funny, and rebellious. I try to commit the stories to memory and make another promise to capture these stories, told off the cuff while cooking, doing hair, or sitting around with a cup of tea. I wonder how much of this has penetrated the collective consciousness of the boys of my generation, whose chromosomes excuse them from these gendered tasks—and even, perhaps, from knowing their history.
There’s a good reason for all of this whispering. There are consequences to women’s words, and the price we pay to stand up for ourselves is often dangerously high. Still, there are women shouting from the rooftops, asserting that our voices and histories matter. But the mechanisms to undermine our credibility and drown us out are robust and pervasive. We even have idiomatic expressions custom-made to delegitimize the whispers of women: Oh, it’s just an old wives’ tale. When a powerful man wants to distance himself from an accusation of sexual violence, one of the easiest ways is to deploy the word “gossip,” a term so gendered, so deeply entrenched in our stereotypes of women that it does all the heavy lifting for him. He may not even have to include other helpers like catty, jealous, slut, or shrew, but they almost never hurt his case.
Everything difficult about women’s lives that is now commonly known was once whispered, from the names of specific perpetrators to the sheer proliferation of people who can also say, if only privately, “me, too.” I can only hope that someday, future generations will look back in anguish and disgust that we ever had to whisper about the Bad Men, utterly confused that the world ever created such dire consequences for even a whisper of the truth. I hope that soon it will be a given that we teach their abuses as an inextricable part of their careers, rather than small personal matters that have nothing to do with their merits.
When this knowledge breaks through to the mainstream—and by that I, of course, mean out in the open in the world of men—it is often with the clatter of a klaxon and the accompanying shock, as though we haven’t been here hissing the truth from the shadows all along. The existence of such a thing as “the husband stitch” rarely surprises women and girls, though it does horrify. Men, on the other hand, can’t seem to believe 1) that it’s actually real, at least until it’s substantiated by a man’s official account, and 2) that no one told them.
We’ve watched similar tumult when other phenomena are collectively revealed to men, like the process of illuminating street harassment. Men were routinely shocked to find out that the women in their lives were walking through an entirely different world than they were, one that is too often threatening, reminding us of past traumas and limiting our movement and our joy. In the same way that people of color, people with disabilities, and/or LGBTQ folk, move through space with entirely different restrictions and threats, there is an alternate world through which ]women walk, if you only listen to the whispers.
In its original form, The Handmaid’s Tale itself is an oral history. The majority of the book is a transcription of cassette tapes found in Maine after the fall of Gilead. The remainder of the book involves the arrogance of Dr. Pieixoto, a male professor who questions the authenticity of the tapes, and throws digs at Offred’s experience and recollections at every opportunity. Margaret Atwood didn’t just write a dystopian tale of speculative fiction; she wrote in the doubt women so often face when we speak our truth, and the refusal of the men of academia to trust in the accounts of women the way they invest themselves in the kindest, most daring interpretations of the accounts of men.
If we want our stories to be told, we can’t count on anyone but us to tell them. Like the fictional handmaids and our very real foremothers, we will continue to whisper words of caution and tales of our truth. But a whisper is only a starting point, and the more of us who join in these whispers, the sooner we can break out into a roar.
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