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Silence, Power, Politics, and Feminism

Shirah Kraus's picture

When I read Eva’s Man, a very personal novel about a poor black woman who experiences violence as a victim, bystander, and perpetrator and serves time in a psychiatric prison for murdering a man, I could not avoid thinking about politics: the politics of incarceration, of identity (gender, race, and class), and of silence and trauma. Eva tells her story in flashbacks, paralleling the experiences of someone who lives with trauma. She tells her story, too, with many silences. She says more in her pauses and not saying than in her speaking. There is no mention of politicians or policies per say, so how does this fictional (and yet so very real) account become political? Eva chooses silence, even though others often demand that she speak. Silence plays a significant role in power and politics, both in empowering and disempowering ways.

Second-wave feminists politicized the personal experiences of women: “the personal is political,” they said. Through consciousness-raising, sharing personal narratives, people began to politicize through “this process of recognizing as social and systemic what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual” (Crenshaw 1241-2). This recognition of larger dynamics that connect and move beyond individual experiences necessitated political action as the private life was brought into the public sphere.

Women continue to share their stories and organize today to fight oppression and violence. They become political by becoming powerful: “Drawing from the strength of shared experience, women have recognized that the political demands of millions speak more powerfully than the pleas of a few isolated voices” (Crenshaw 1241). Their power comes from their “strength” and their numbers. And power is the essence of politics.

The second-wave feminists chose to voice their experiences, to break silences in order to gain power. But is it possible that silence itself can be powerful? Firstly what is power? According to French and Raven, there are five (or six) types of power: reward, coercive, legitimate, referent, and expert (155-6). Reward power is based on a person’s belief that another person can reward them, coercive power is based on a belief that one can be punished by another, legitimate power is based on a belief in a legitimate right to hold power (e.g. holding a title or position, being elected, etc…), referent power is based on a person’s respect and admiration for another, and expert power is based on a belief that someone else has significant knowledge or expertise (156). These five types of power are all understood as some person or group of people having power over another. All five types of power can be supported by silence. It is the belief, not the reality (though they are not mutually exclusive), that maintains power, so silence by omission can be used to exercise power with any type. For example, if a donor threatens to take their money away from an organization unless certain criteria are met, they are exercising power whether or not they actually intend to do such a thing. The threat is enough. There is silence in the lie. Especially with legitimate power, silence can maintain power by not challenging it. If someone is chosen president and all are silent, that person maintains power, because there are no challenges to their power. Similarly, if someone exercises coercive power in the form of abuse and no one speaks up, they are able to continue to exercise that power without challenge. When exercising expert power, silence can be a very useful tool. If someone controls, holds, and withholds information, they have power. Sometimes experts can silence experiences. For example, an “expert” is brought in to discuss the dynamics and details of diplomacy and make political decisions, while the person, who lives their life surrounded by whatever war or tragedy is being negotiated, has no say. An expert is a master of knowledge and of language and can exercise power by monopolizing language: “It is possible to silence people by denying them access to the vocabulary to express their claims” (Stanley). Just as white is its own color, silence is its own sound, message, politics: “Silencing is only one kind of propaganda. In silencing, one removes the ability of a target person or group to communicate” (Stanley). In politics, silencing is often used to promote an ideology, to disempower and shut out voices.

In many ways, silencing the powerless maintains the power of the powerful, but can the powerless take ownership of silence and challenge, resist the powerful? How can silence be empowering? Renee Heberle challenges the “political strategy based on ‘exposure of women’s suffering,”’ which ‘totalizes’ women as victims, inviting silence instead and narratives focused on women’s ‘“successful’ attempts to thwart sexual violence” (qtd. in Sweeney 88-9). These narratives of “victimization [which Heberle is criticizing] often fail to account for the complexity of women’s experiences” (Sweeney 86). Not only are they reductive and detrimental to the image of women, they can also be damaging to the person telling their story. Wendy Brown writes: “‘confessing injury’ can also ‘become that which attaches us to the injury, paralyzes us within it, and prevents us from seeking or even desiring a status other than that of injured”’ (qtd. in Sweeney 84). Just as silence can be damaging, so too can speaking. Moreover, it is the forced, coerced, and imposed silence that is so especially damaging. Demanding or forcing one to speak, to be vulnerable can be similarly damaging.

Gayl Jones’s Eva chooses silence, often resisting those privileged and powerful who demand that she speak. This is her way of being powerful. Davis tries to get her to talk. The police and detectives and psychiatrists and Elvira keep pestering Eva: “Speak!” they demand of her. To do so would be to acquiesce, to give them power. Refusal is resistance is power. The psychiatrist says, ‘“You’re going to have to open up sometime, woman, to somebody. I want to help you”’ (Jones 77). But if he really wants to help, why is he so demanding and abrasive? Why not allow Eva to choose her silences, to choose when she speaks. In the psychiatric prison, Eva has so few choices. Perhaps maintaining silence is her only way of maintaining even the slightest control over herself. Later the psychiatrist posits a theory about “him” symbolizing all of the men in Eva’s life. When Eva asks, “Who?,” the psychiatrist responds triumphantly: “‘I got something out of you,’ he said. He was proud of himself” (Jones 81). It is the psychiatrist, not Eva, who is “helped” here. Getting Eva to talk is like a game. Davis plays it. Elvira plays it. They all play it. If they get her to say a word, they win.

But Eva doesn’t really win by remaining silence: why doesn’t she defend herself? Why didn’t she tell people that the man she had stabbed had sexually assaulted her? She might have avoided jail time. Eva doesn’t win by being silent, but would she win by speaking out? At least she prevents the others from winning when she maintains her silence. At least no one wins.

Different theorists have argued for silence, against silence, for speaking out, against speaking out. But the dilemmas that women face and the intersectional identities that women embody defy a universalist message. As Sweeney writes, “feminist theorists often make normative claims about what “we” must and must not do in navigating the terrain of victimization: we must speak out, we must not speak out, we must fight back, we must foreground resistance. Such theorizing leaves little room for the varied, strategic and contingent, and even surprising ways in which women grapple with their experiences of victimization” (87). There is no universal solution to the dilemma of speaking out versus maintaining silence. Rather, every woman should have a right to choose between the two, and may consider other options that go beyond this binary. Moreover, we should focus on preventing the violence and oppression that places women in these dilemmas in the first place. Adrienne Rich writes about the political importance of speaking out, acknowledging a personal loss. Heberle writes about the cathartic power of sharing stories. When it comes to both the personal experiences of catharsis and the political actions of change, there is no one right answer for all women.

In her Ted Talk (and her book), Roxane Gay jokingly calls herself a “bad feminist” because she listens to music that degrades women, because she is “messy” and imperfect. Her joke is a critique of the feminism that puts people on pedestals and expects them to be perfect. There is no one way to be a feminist. A cousin of mine, a couple years younger than I am, asked me if I was a feminist. “Of course,” I texted her, “are you?”

“I guess,” she responded, “but I still like to shave and wear bras and stuff.” I laughed with my friends about her response. Of course you can be a feminist and wear bras. And you can be a feminist and not wear bras. “Feminism is for everybody,” says Bell Hooks. The whole point is that people should be able to choose, really choose based on what they want and not on gendered prescriptions. We live in the world as it is, we are faced with lose-lose dilemmas every day. We are all bad feminists and that’s okay.

Instead of losing, we should focus on choosing.

When it comes to silence, politics, and gender, I cannot say: “speak up” or “stay silent” to all women. Every situation calls for a different response and we should support and uplift the women who make their choices. We should work to create structures that empower women, that allow women to really choose, that are intersectional. We should work to prevent the forced silencing and the forced speaking. In various situations, both silence and speaking up can be powerful and political.


Anne Dalke's picture

You begin this essay by claiming that Eva’s “very personal” story is a political one. You develop that claim by drawing on Crenshaw’s explanation of how second-wave feminists “politicized the personal,” “recognizing as social and systemic what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual.” This association begs the question of how much Eva herself recognized these “larger dynamics that connect and move beyond individual experiences.” Does she need to recognize this link, in order for your claim to be valid? How essential to your argument is her consciousness about these matters, her reflective awareness of what she is doing?

You contrast the movement’s refusal of silencing, as a form of disempowerment, with Eva’s “choosing silence,” and insist that doing so also gives her “access to power”: “Refusal is resistance is power.” You then conclude that there is “no universal solution to the dilemma of speaking out versus maintaining silence,” that we should work to prevent both “forced silencing” and “forced speaking”: the “whole point is that people should be able to choose.”

Do you think that Eva choses? That anyone facing what you call “lose-lose dilemmas,” or what I’ve heard termed “choice-less choices,” really chooses?

 “Feminism is for everybody,” you say bell hooks says. In the little book we’ll be distributing, as our gift for the final Friday class in prison, Chimamanda Adichie makes this an imperative: “We should all be feminists,” she says:  “Girls grow up … to be women who silence themselves.  They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think.  They grow up—and this is the worst thing we do to girls—they grow up to be women who have turned pretense into an art form.”

How much of what Eva does is pretense, rather than politics? Does the difference between the two lie in her consciousness about what she is doing?