Silent and Quiet Women: Silence as a Tool for Empowerment

No one wants to be silenced. Forced silence oppresses. Yet some literary characters chose to be silent. They do so as a form of self-empowerment. “Self-chosen silence can be more powerful than speech in many circumstances.”

Last semester I taught my class called The Sounds of Silence: A Biodiversity of Mute and Quiet Women in a World of Brutal Noise.* Each time I teach this particular class, I learn so much from my amazing students. And they continue to learn. A former student sent me this article called The Powerful Silence of the March for Our Lives, written by Megan Garber for The Atlantic.

Emma González, a student and shooting survivor from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, addressing the conclusion of the “March for Our Lives” event in Washington, D.C. From The Atlantic.

Garber writes how silence can be more powerful than words:

What the March for Our Lives presented at the same time, however, was … the opposite of all that. The event served up, as part of its speech, silence—simple silence. Striking silence. Solemn silence. Participants in the march took the convened attention of an international audience and used it not only to advocate for gun control, but also to advocate, more broadly, for people who had been deprived of speech. And to offer a solemn reminder that, for some things—even in this most classic of First Amendment contexts—words will never, can never, be enough.

The dynamic power of silence resonates with my students in so many different ways. On the first day of my class, I ask them to write about their relationship with silence and what it means to them. Then, on the last day, I give them back that response and ask them to talk about their relationship to silence now, after having read so many works with silent women and having made noise about this topic.

I honor what my students say–their integrity and honesty.

I was struck how many of the students were moved by Wide Sargasso Sea for bringing forth issues of mental health. We do a disservice to our students if we don’t acknowledge the great pressures they face in a variety of ways. “The silence in this case makes me so sad because people’s health is being ignored for other people’s comfort.” The class, one student admitted, made her reflect on her own silence about her mental health issues. Silence “can be a refuge,” but it also is necessary to “break my own silence about health.” She points out that in the book Passing and the film The Piano, silence “was the villain, just as silence can be the villain in life.”

One student pointed out how silence is “like a tool…in powerful ways.” The main character in The Piano uses “her silence throughout the entire movie as a form of power.” As another student writes, “Silence to me is still power, it speaks louder than words, and in the face of noise is steadfast.” I love the use of the word “steadfast”–it recurs in Anglo-Saxon poetry especially in conjunction with doughty virgin martyrs who resist evil men.

Silence can be, as one student observes, “a form of communication as well as a cry for help.” She goes one to admit that “I never realized how silenced I was myself, and this class helped with that.”

Students were empowered by different characters, such as Teresa de Cartagena, the 15th-century deaf Spanish nun. “Her ability to use knowledge as a kind of weapon is inspiring and fuels a part of me that I did not know I possessed….It has made me more outspoken when I do not agree with someone or something….This class has made me a more outspoken person, but not in the way I use my voice, but in the way I write my words.” Ultimately, no one can be totally silenced, whether through words, actions, or skills.

Yet another student realized how her initial assessment of silence as superficial was wrong. And this she learned in great part through the presence of another student with hearing impairment who was in our class, whose “drive, intelligence, and insight matches and even exceeds that of her peers.”

Another student commented on “self-inflicted silence.” But she points out how “when we are forcably silent we blame ourselves.” She warns against “silencing the humanity” of another person. “I’ll be damned if I let [my opinion] be silenced!” Yes!

“There are many different ways to regain your voice and be heard amidst all the noise.”

“Silence is a human issue. This class isn’t about female empowerment, this class is about human empowerment….Silence is anything that takes away one’s ability to connect with others.” Yes!

From The Guardian article called “Mute point: why silent women make the biggest noise at the Oscars”

And the Oscars have often noted “silent” characters, particularly women. See this article in The Guardian, called “Mute point: why silent women make the biggest noise at the Oscars.” As we see with the March for Our Lives movement, silence resounds powerfully.

I hope you enjoyed hearing these voices here.

* This is the course description:

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.

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