Our Duty

Two courses I teach, Medieval Women Writers and The Sounds of Silence: A Biodiversity of Mute and Quiet Women in a World of Brutal Noise,*  seem even more timely than ever now that the revelations — fearlessly spoken by heroic female athletes — of sexual abuse they endured have rocked the world.

One of my students wrote me how deeply these words affected her from Amanda Thomashow: ‘You didn’t realize that you were building an army of survivors, an army of female warriors committed to obtaining justice. … You might have broken us, but from this rubble we will rise,’ will probably stick with me forever.”

I responded, “I’m thinking of Perpetua and Felicitas–amazing women who have taken charge of all they’ve suffered…” Speech is one way women have had the ability to take charge. Honing one’s rhetorical skills empowers the (often disempowered) victim. 

Perpetua and Felicitas, early martyrs in the 3rd century, used language to attack their tormentors. Nothing will change Perpetua’s sense of self–not even an angry father or a murderous politician. Her identity, as a Christian in a dangerous time, cannot be shaken.

While we were still under arrest (she said) my father out of love for me was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution. ‘Father,’ said I, ‘do you see this vase here, for example, or waterpot or whatever?’

‘Yes, I do’, said he.

And I told him: ‘Could it be called by any other name than what it is?’

And he said: ‘No.’

‘Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.’

At this my father was so angered by the word ‘Christian’ that he moved towards me as though he would pluck my eyes out. But he left it at that and departed, vanquished along with his diabolical arguments.

Just so, the female athletes who suffered abuse by Larry Nassar refused to be talked down or out of their knowledge of the truth.

Ahasuerus and Haman at the Feast of Esther, by Rembrandt

Women from the past can provide inspiration to those today. One of the first accusers, Larissa Boyce, found the courage to speak by thinking of a woman from the past. As a New York Times article reports, “In explaining her own decision to come forward, Ms. Boyce said she had been emboldened by the story of Queen Esther, a biblical figure celebrated for her bravery and willingness to speak out.”

Change can happen. Sometimes just knowing someone else is willing to act or speak can cause others to likewise speak up. And sometimes that catalyst comes from a figure from the distant past, as in the case of Ms. Boyce. Hence the importance of sharing stories of brave women–from today and long ago.

An article in the NYT about trauma and the aftermath of being abused consults therapists as to the healing that can potentially occur after telling one’s story. “The value in telling the story may not be that it leads to justice, then, but that it helps the speaker regain control of a narrative that plays out endlessly in his or her mind.” The idea of controlling narrative is vital in the stories we read of women in the past. The popularity of historical fiction taking a famous incident or novel and rewriting it from the woman’s perspective likewise reflects this notion of controlling narrative.  While narrative and story cannot make up for trauma and abuse, it can validate the experiences of those who have suffered.

Another medieval woman author whose works are inspirational here are those of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim. In her plays (the first dramas since the classical period–by male OR female), she often shows girls (sometimes as young as 8) and young women valiantly speaking up against powerful men who wish to have sex with them and/or change their religious conviction. In Dulcitius, one girl challenges the emperor Diocletian:

AGAPE. You are bold to slander the majesty of Almighty God. It is dangerous.

DIOCLETIAN. Dangerous? To whom?

AGAPE. To you, and to the state you rule.

DIOCLETIAN. The girl raves. Take her away.

CHIONIA. My sister does not rave. She is right.

Though they are eventually put to the sword, they fearlessly speak out against wrong.

One evil count threatens to have her sent to a brothel and be raped.

SISINNIUS. I can send you to a house of ill-fame, where your body will be abominably defiled.

HIRENA. Better far that my body should suffer outrage than my soul.

SISINNIUS. When you are dishonoured and forced to live among harlots, you can no longer be numbered among the virgins.

HIRENA. The wage of sin is death; the wage of suffering a crown. If the soul does not consent, there is no guilt.

Hirena’s points out that forced sexual intercourse–rape and sexual assault–cannot affect the purity of the soul as there is no consent. And this written 1000 years ago! It must have been consoling to faithful Christian women who had been raped that their true intent was taken seriously by the most important male figure of all–God. In fact, earthly powerful men had no legitimacy beside the heavenly Father.

Hrotsvit called herself the “strong voice of Gandersheim.” The female athletes who speak out today are likewise strong voices we must listen to. As I wrote to my student on why these athletes are so inspiring, “I think because they have really been horribly maligned–not even believed (makes me furious) and then of course they told the truth. And they are willing to face the torturer and persecutor and speak so eloquently. They use language as a weapon and control it. I can barely read what they said, it’s so moving and horrific–then I think, ‘If they experienced it, it’s my duty to read it.'”

It’s the duty of all of us.

 

* This is the course description of The Sounds of Silence:

This course looks at silent women, quiet women, and mute women. Sometimes their hush is self-imposed, other times it is violently forced upon them. Passing, they erase their race and gender orientation. Yet, even with their tongues cut out, women speak. Sexually violated, they insist on their story. Enslaved, they shape their ends. Philomela—raped and mutilated—survives as a mythic emblem of female voicelessness. Some texts we look at are modern novels that tell the stories of women denied their chance at speech—in feminist versions of Homer’s Odyssey, Beowulf, and Jane Eyre. In a variety of texts –from Roman myth, Icelandic saga, and medieval religious sign language texts to a cross-dressed female knight, victimized wife, and deaf nun—we will attempt to hear these quiet voices from the past and rowdily proclaim their vibrancy for their future.


2 thoughts on “Our Duty

  1. Fascinating subject, silencing women. Growing up in Iceland I was surrounded by “strong women” as in hard workers, responsible, sleepless nights, feisty, but the power brokers were males. Yet, we did elect the first woman president (Vigdis) in the western world, rebelled and went on strike in 1975, and chose a openly gay woman as our prime minister 2009, and equal pay in 2018. Now living in America, writing a newsletter specifically for women in the latter lanes, learning how my readers push against the idea that our history of women silenced and punished when they dared object is still with us. It may take a different form, but silenced we are. Thank you for sharing your work.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind comments. I try to expose the truth about women’s history and women’s writings in all my classes. And I often teach the sagas–role models for women to speak up! Many thanks, Susan

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