“Silence is gold.”
“Silence is a woman’s garment.”
“What becometh a woman best, and first of all? Silence. What second? Silence. What third? Silence. What fourth? Silence. Yea, if a man should aske me till Domes daie I would still crie silence, silence.”
Thomas Wilson, who penned those last words in 1560, came from millennia of civilizations peopled by silent women. Freedom of speech, since the ancient world, had been proffered to men – and before the Enlightenment, not even to all men, but that is another essay.
Women were long, at various times and in various places, denied rights such as those to education, to vote, to freedom of movement, choice of profession and partner, but perhaps the greatest, most debilitating injustice committed against them was silence.
Silence imposed by religion or politics or society. Silence self-imposed by fear or ignorance or domesticity. Silence was not golden. Silence meant that half the world’s population was deprived of a voice to reflect, to synthesize, to create, to contribute to the betterment of humankind. Crippling.
Speech is power, and the right to it is fundamental, universal. And not all women were silent. On the contrary, some voices were explosive. Some women’s contributions had such seismic impact that they still vibrate today, in science, politics, literature, human rights, sociology, philosophy.
We owe these women, who had so much to say, too much to relegate them to silence, to leave them out of our history books. So, let’s talk about them.
This month, in the silence of our contemplation, let’s contemplate Sybil Ludington, who like Paul Revere, rode nearly 40 miles to warn her father’s men of the 1777 British invasion.
Let’s contemplate Ada Lovelace who, in 1842, wrote the code for the world’s first computer program. Or Nellie Bly who, inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, went on that journey on her own… and did it in 72.
We know of Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Adam Smith, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Great men of great words and deeds, but we should also know of other names. Of Rosalind Franklin, who unlocked the structure of DNA, without which Watson and Crick could never have built their model. Of Cecilia Payne, who actually discovered what stars are made of. Caroline Herschel, who mapped them. Jane Addams, whose philosophy bound democracy to social ethics. Maria Mitchell, who started a school for white and “colored” children… in 1835, twenty-six years before the civil war.
There are so many silent women to voice – millions – that it would take much longer than a month to pay tribute to each of them. But we can stop for a month and listen, recognize their existence, worthy and equal to those of men. Complementary and collaborative.
“By redefining whose voice is valued, we redefine our society and its values,” Rebecca Solnit wrote. Let’s redefine. Let’s listen.