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Gendered Silence

     I started this paper with Christine Kim’s work in mind. What she displays about ownership of sound has become very visible to me; hearing people uncritically, unthoughtfully claim ownership of sound and then subject non-hearing people to the rules we establish without realizing it.

     Thinking about ownership of sound as it extends to gender brings to light a hierarchy of ownership. Men (white men) exist at the top in this patriarchal culture we live in. It feels overdone and common knowledge (especially at Bryn Mawr where our unofficial school motto is D to the P or Death to the Patriarchy), but even if it is well known to some, it still exists.
      What does ownership of speech look like? Well, I think that, much like white privilege, there is a culture of power which some people learn and experience and others do not. To elaborate, men (white men) are born into a world in which white men are speaking all around them -- father figures, protagonists in movies and books, politicians -- open your Norton Anthology of Literature. Even the New Yorker in 2012 and other literary magazines review three times as many male authors). Men can turn on their television or open any book and men are taking up all (or at least the vast majority of the talking space). Thus, a male can grow up feeling like “well, of course what I have to say is worthwhile. Of course other people care.” It’s a production and a sustaining factor of the patriarchy -- men’s speech is almost automatically legitimate. As a result of this confidence -- this empowerment (which I do not blame white men for) causes men to be more inclined to speak. However, this can be a problem when men do not notice that others are not as quick to speak, because they do not have this conditioned confidence or speaking privilege. Open your eyes and look around you next time you’re in a co-ed class or community meeting -- you may notice that even if the room is full of mostly women, men are speaking more than 50% of the time.
       This is changing, sure. There are more women now in college in the United States than men, and of course, at Bryn Mawr, we do not have the problem of having our voices dominated or silenced by men. But it still exists culturally.
       Virginia Woolf offers interesting insight to this question of speech ownership in her essay A Room of One’s Own, where she examines the history of women writing and is saddened by her inability to name a moment in literary history when a female character speaks to another female character about something besides a man.  “And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends” (A Room of One’s Own, Chapter 5). She claims that when women converse in literature, it’s overly simplified, as if they exist only in relation to men. Where as men speak about everything under the sun and beyond -- their adventures, their philosophies, etc.  This phenomenon of women not speaking to each other has not changed much in mainstream representations.
        Allison Bechdel in her comic series Dyke’s To Watch Out For established a test called the Bechdel Test to examine female voice in film. To pass the test, a film must include a female character speaking to another female character about something besides men. Very few movies pass this test -- almost no major Hollywood films. (All of the Lord of the Rings movies fail, the most recent Harry Potter film, Star Wars, etc.) This demonstrates how women even now do not have the same ownership of speech that men do.
         In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf  goes on to say that the forms we have for expressing ourselves, i.e. writing (and now filmmaking), are avenues which were established and structured by men. And so she finds it difficult and unsettling to be forced to use a man’s form. The structure of our language is arguably a man’s form as well.
          Many features of our language are the result of  social values, and because we live in a patriarchal society, men have structured language according to their position of dominance. For example, the word “mankind” represents the human species and yet it only represents the dominant sex. Linguist Monique Wittig claims that this patriarchal nature of language “goes back so far that the origin of language itself may be considered an act of authority emanating from those who dominate” and therefore,  “the language [women] speak is made up of words that are killing [them]” (112). If men have had the power in our society historically, it is not surprising that language has developed in such a way that maintains that power—partially by silencing and dominating women.
         So now that I’ve outlined why men are more likely to claim ownership of speech, what can we do about it? Well, I don’t want to be morally prescriptive, but I think we can try to be as conscious as possible of who is speaking -- and who feels that they own the speaking space/time. This extends beyond gender -- to class, race, (dis)ability, culture, etc. All of these contribute to who feels fearless about jumping into discussion -- who is compelled to impose their voice onto a group and who feels hesitant, disinclined, or even unworthy. I implore you to think about ways you can share or forfeit your ownership so that people’s voices can be heard.