Silence is golden, or so I was told when I was young. Later, everything changed. Silence equals death, the queer activists fighting the neglect and repression around Aids shouted in the streets. Silence is the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard. It surrounds the scattered islands made up of those allowed to speak and of what can be said and who listens.
Silence occurs in many ways for many reasons; each of us has his or her own sea of unspoken words. English is full of overlapping words, but for the purposes of this essay, regard silence as what is imposed, and quiet as what is sought. The tranquillity of a quiet place, of quieting one’s own mind, of a retreat from words and bustle is acoustically the same as the silence of intimidation or repression, but psychically and politically something entirely different. What is unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought and what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great are as different as swimming is from drowning. Quiet is to noise as silence is to communication.
International Women's Day: the women leading local government – video
The quiet of the listener makes room for the speech of others, like the quiet of the reader taking in words on the page, like the white of the paper taking ink. “We are volcanoes,” Ursula Le Guin once remarked. “When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.” The new voices that are undersea volcanoes erupt in what was mistaken for open water, and new islands are born; it’s a furious business and a startling one. The world changes. Silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished. If our voices are essential aspects of our humanity, to be rendered voiceless is to be dehumanised or excluded from one’s humanity. And the history of silence is central to women’s history.
Words bring us together, and silence separates us, leaves us bereft of the help or solidarity or just communion that speech can solicit or elicit. Some species of trees spread root systems underground that interconnect the individual trunks and weave the individual trees into a more stable whole that can’t so easily be blown down in the wind. Stories and conversations are like those roots.
Being unable to tell your story is a living death, and sometimes a literal one. If no one listens when you say your ex-husband is trying to kill you, if no one believes you when you say you are in pain, if no one hears you when you say help, if you don’t dare say help, if you have been trained not to bother people by saying help. If you are considered to be out of line when you speak up in a meeting, are not admitted into an institution of power, are subject to irrelevant criticism whose subtext is that women should not be here or heard.
Stories save your life. And stories are your life. We are our stories; stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison. We make stories to save ourselves or to trap ourselves or others – stories that lift us up or smash us against the stone wall of our own limits and fears. Liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.
Violence against women is often against our voices and our stories. It is a refusal of our voices, and of what a voice means: the right to self-determination, to participation, to consent or dissent; to live and participate, to interpret and narrate.
Sometimes just being able to speak, to be heard, to be believed, are crucial parts of membership in a society
A husband hits his wife to silence her. A date rapist or acquaintance rapist refuses to let the “no” of his victim mean what it should, that she alone has jurisdiction over her body. Rape culture asserts that women’s testimony is worthless, untrustworthy. Anti-abortion activists also seek to silence the self-determination of women. A murderer silences forever.
These are assertions that the victim has no rights, no value – is not an equal.
Other silencings take place in smaller ways: the people harassed and badgered into silence online, talked over and cut out in conversation, belittled, humiliated, dismissed.
Having a voice is crucial. It’s not all there is to human rights, but it’s central to them, and so you can consider the history of women’s rights and lack of rights as a history of silence and breaking silence. Speech, words, voices sometimes change things in themselves when they bring about inclusion, recognition: the rehumanisation that undoes dehumanisation. Sometimes they are only the preconditions to changing rules, laws, regimes to bring about justice and liberty.
Sometimes just being able to speak, to be heard, to be believed, are crucial parts of membership in a family, a community, a society. Sometimes our voices break those things apart; sometimes those things are prisons.
And then when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable. Those not impacted can fail to see or feel the impact of segregation or police brutality or domestic violence; stories bring home the trouble and make it unavoidable.
By voice, I don’t mean only literal voice – the sound produced by the vocal cords in the ears of others – but the ability to speak up, to participate, to experience oneself and be experienced as a free person with rights. This includes the right not to speak, whether it’s the right against being tortured to confess, as political prisoners are, or not to be expected to service strangers who approach you, as some men do to young women, demanding attention and flattery and punishing their absence.
Who has been unheard? The sea is vast, and the surface of the ocean is unmappable. We know who has, mostly, been heard on the official subjects; who held office, commanded armies, served as judges and juries, wrote books, and ran empires over past several centuries. We know how it has changed somewhat, thanks to the countless revolutions of the 20th century and after – against colonialism, racism, misogyny, against the innumerable enforced silences homophobia imposed, and so much more. We know that in the US, class was levelled out to some extent in the 20th century and then reinforced towards the end, through income inequality and the withering away of social mobility and the rise of a new extreme elite. Poverty silences.
Silence is what allowed predators to rampage through the decades unchecked. It’s as though the voices of these prominent public men devoured the voices of others into nothingness, a narrative cannibalism. They rendered them voiceless to refuse and afflicted with unbelievable stories. Unbelievable means those with power did not want to know, to hear, to believe, did not want them to have voices. People died from being unheard.
If the right to speak, if having credibility, if being heard is a kind of wealth, that wealth is now being redistributed. There has long been an elite with audibility and credibility, and an underclass of the voiceless.
What’s next for the women’s movement?
As the wealth is redistributed, the stunned incomprehension of the elites erupts over and over again, a fury and disbelief that this woman or child dared to speak up, that people deigned to believe her, that her voice counts for something, that her truth may end a powerful man’s reign. These voices, heard, upend power relations.
A hotel cleaner launched the beginning of the end of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s career. Women have ended the careers of stars in many fields – or rather those stars have destroyed themselves by acts they engaged in, believing that they had the impunity that comes with their victims’ powerlessness. Many had impunity for years, some for lifetimes; many have now found they no longer do.
Who is heard and who is not defines the status quo. Those who embody it, often at the cost of extraordinary silences with themselves, move to the centre; those who embody what is not heard, or what violates those who rise on silence, are cast out.
By redefining whose voice is valued, we redefine our society and its values.
•This essay is an extract from Rebecca Solnit’s new book, The Mother of All Questions
Women's rights are the rights and entitlements claimed for women and girls worldwide, and formed the basis for the women's rights movement in the nineteenth century and feminist movement during the 20th century. In some countries, these rights are institutionalized or supported by law, local custom, and behavior, whereas in others they are ignored and suppressed. They differ from broader notions of human rights through claims of an inherent historical and traditional bias against the exercise of rights by women and girls, in favor of men and boys.
Issues commonly associated with notions of women's rights include, though are not limited to, the right: to bodily integrity and autonomy; to be free from sexual violence; to vote; to hold public office; to enter into legal contracts; to have equal rights in family law; to work; to fair wages or equal pay; to have reproductive rights; to own property; to education.
See also: Legal rights of women in history and Timeline of women's rights (other than voting)
Women in ancient Sumer could buy, own, sell, and inherit property. They could engage in commerce, and testify in court as witnesses. Nonetheless, their husbands could divorce them for mild infractions, and a divorced husband could easily remarry another woman, provided that his first wife had borne him no offspring. Female deities, such as Inanna, were widely worshipped.:182 The Akkadian poetess Enheduanna, the priestess of Inanna and daughter of Sargon, is the earliest known poet whose name has been recorded.Old Babylonian law codes permitted a husband to divorce his wife under any circumstances,:140 but doing so required him to return all of her property and sometimes pay her a fine.:140 Most law codes forbade a woman to request her husband for a divorce and enforced the same penalties on a woman asking for divorce as on a woman caught in the act of adultery;:140 some Babylonian and Assyrian laws, however, afforded women the same right to divorce as men, requiring them to pay exactly the same fine.:140 The majority of East Semitic deities were male.:179
Main article: Women in ancient Egypt
In ancient Egypt women enjoyed the same rights under the law as a men, however rightful entitlements depended upon social class. Landed property descended in the female line from mother to daughter, and women were entitled to administer their own property. Women in ancient Egypt could buy, sell, be a partner in legal contracts, be executor in wills and witness to legal documents, bring court action, and adopt children.
Main article: Women in India
Women during the early Vedic period enjoyed equal status with men in all aspects of life. Works by ancient Indian grammarians such as Patanjali and Katyayana suggest that women were educated in the early Vedic period. Rigvedic verses suggest that women married at a mature age and were probably free to select their own husbands in a practice called swayamvar or live-in relationship called Gandharva marriage.
Further information: Women in Greece
Although most women lacked political and equal rights in the city states of ancient Greece, they enjoyed a certain freedom of movement until the Archaic age. Records also exist of women in ancient Delphi, Gortyn, Thessaly, Megara and Sparta owning land, the most prestigious form of private property at the time. However, after the Archaic age, legislators began to enact laws enforcing gender segregation, resulting in decreased rights for women.
Women in Classical Athens had no legal personhood and were assumed to be part of the oikos headed by the male kyrios. Until marriage, women were under the guardianship of their father or other male relative. Once married, the husband became a woman's kyrios. As women were barred from conducting legal proceedings, the kyrios would do so on their behalf. Athenian women could only acquire rights over property through gifts, dowry and inheritance, though her kyrios had the right to dispose of a woman's property. Athenian women could only enter into a contract worth less than the value of a "medimnos of barley" (a measure of grain), allowing women to engage in petty trading. Women were excluded from ancient Athenian democracy, both in principle and in practice. Slaves could become Athenian citizens after being freed, but no woman ever acquired citizenship in ancient Athens. In classical Athens women were also barred from becoming poets, scholars, politicians, or artists. During the Hellenistic period in Athens, the philosopher Aristotle thought that women would bring disorder and evil, therefore it was best to keep women separate from the rest of the society. This separation would entail living in a room called a gynaikeion, while looking after the duties in the home and having very little exposure with the male world. This was also to ensure that wives only had legitimate children from their husbands. Athenian women received little education, except home tutorship for basic skills such as spin, weave, cook and some knowledge of money.
Although Spartan women were formally excluded from military and political life they enjoyed considerable status as mothers of Spartan warriors. As men engaged in military activity, women took responsibility for running estates. Following protracted warfare in the 4th century BC Spartan women owned approximately between 35% and 40% of all Spartan land and property. By the Hellenistic Period, some of the wealthiest Spartans were women. Spartan women controlled their own properties, as well as the properties of male relatives who were away with the army. Girls as well as boys received an education. But despite relatively greater freedom of movement for Spartan women, their role in politics was just as the same as Athenian women.
Plato acknowledged that extending civil and political rights to women would substantively alter the nature of the household and the state.Aristotle, who had been taught by Plato, denied that women were slaves or subject to property, arguing that "nature has distinguished between the female and the slave", but he considered wives to be "bought". He argued that women's main economic activity is that of safeguarding the household property created by men. According to Aristotle the labour of women added no value because "the art of household management is not identical with the art of getting wealth, for the one uses the material which the other provides". Contrary to these views, the Stoic philosophers argued for equality of the sexes, sexual inequality being in their view contrary to the laws of nature. In doing so, they followed the Cynics, who argued that men and women should wear the same clothing and receive the same kind of education. They also saw marriage as a moral companionship between equals rather than a biological or social necessity, and practiced these views in their lives as well as their teachings. The Stoics adopted the views of the Cynics and added them to their own theories of human nature, thus putting their sexual egalitarianism on a strong philosophical basis.
Further information: Women in ancient Rome
Roman law, similar to Athenian law, was created by men in favor of men. Women had no public voice, and no public role which only improved after the 1st century to the 6th century BCE. Freeborn women of ancient Rome were citizens who enjoyed legal privileges and protections that did not extend to non-citizens or slaves. Roman society, however, was patriarchal, and women could not vote, hold public office, or serve in the military. Women of the upper classes exercised political influence through marriage and motherhood. During the Roman Republic, the mother of the Gracchus brothers and of Julius Caesar were noted as exemplary women who advanced the career of their sons. During the Imperial period, women of the emperor's family could acquire considerable political power, and were regularly depicted in official art and on coinage.
The central core of the Roman society was the pater familias or the male head of the household who exercised his authority over all his children, servants, and wife. Girls had equal inheritance rights with boys if their father died without leaving a will. Similar to Athenian women, Roman women had a guardian or as it was called "tutor" who managed and oversaw all her activity. This tutelage had limited female activity but by first century to sixth century BCE, tutelage became very relaxed and women were accepted to participate in more public roles such as owning or managing property and or acting as municipal patrons for gladiator games and other entertainment activities Childbearing was encouraged by the state. By 27–14 BCE the ius trium liberorum
Respectable Athenian women were expected to involve themselves in domestic tasks such as washing clothes (left); in reality, many worked (right).