by Catriona Mitchell
Feeling voiceless must be one of the greatest forms of suffering on the planet, and it’s an issue that affects women a lot, regardless of nationality or background – as we’re only beginning to find out, with more and more women coming forward to speak their truth, when previously they were too afraid, or too professionally vulnerable, to do so.
All of a sudden, long-held silences are being broken.
I’m seeing this play out amongst my female friends. The groundswell is bringing a new courage: they are naming what has previously been unnamed, quitting careers in favour of more meaningful ones, walking away from malfunctional marriages, terminating friendships that never felt entirely genuine but were somehow difficult to sever. They’re shining light onto darkness, in other words, and doing the work required to set things right.
This has got me thinking about where the murky silences are found in my own life.
Silence is no stranger to me. I grew up in a family where nobody spoke; in fact, when I was small, our landlady, who happened to be a paediatrician, took my mother aside and said, “Mrs Mitchell, you must start speaking to your children, or they will grow up disturbed.” But my mother was a foreigner, ashamed of her scant English, and my father, who had grown up an orphan, had simply never learned how to communicate.
I didn’t converse with my parents. They didn’t converse with each other. I heard no family stories. I grew up in a vocal vacuum.
For many years I struggled to link my inner reality to words, and thus create an ‘interpersonal bridge’ through voice; and well into adulthood, my voice would unexpectedly constrict or dwindle in social as well as professional situations, as if someone else was in charge of the volume control, and could turn me up or down at will. This was uncomfortable, shameful even; I didn’t know how to control it, and it had me avoid the situations where I saw any risk of this happening (with many a professional opportunity passing by as a result.)
Perhaps because of this peculiar disability, vocal confidence has been something of an obsession. It has led me to follow a career showcasing some of the world’s most talented speakers and thinkers, and it has motivated many a conversation around vocal power.
“I raise up my voice – not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard… We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” – Malala
What has struck me over the years, through conversations with women from different corners of the world, is the number who feel harm will come to them if they speak openly; and keep their voices deliberately hushed in order to feel safe.
Most of the time this isn’t embedded in any tangible context. Yes, in some cases these women were facing real danger: one friend was threatened with physical harm if her husband found her writing, and just last month, I listened to Taslima Nasreen talk about the mortal dangers she’s been exposed to since she started speaking out in favour of women’s rights and human rights in her home country, Bangladesh. But I’ve also heard this fear of voice being expressed by women who lead secure lives, in peaceful environments, with no immediate sign of danger around them at all.
Where, I wonder, does this stem from? Does it come down to a primal survival instinct? Is it a throwback to more primitive times when voicing dissonance might have led to being ostracized from the tribe (and therefore to perishing)?
Does it hark back to when women were burned at the stake for expressing natural, feminine intelligence? Do we have a psychic inheritance of trauma around this, that marks us to this day?
Perhaps it’s more straightforward than that. Research indicates that, in the West at least, vocal confidence for girls starts to diminish at around the age of nine. This is when we become more conscious of the world around us, and develop a need to please; when we place more value on keeping others happy (parents, teachers, peers) than on expressing ourselves as we truly are.
In short, we become conciliatory. Polite.
This is socialised into us for gendered reasons too, of course, and as a consequence we become dulled to our own truth. Worst case scenario: as adults, we no longer know what our truth is, or where to locate it.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her introduction to Women Who Run With the Wolves writes: ‘When we lose touch with the instinctive psyche, we live in a semi-destroyed state, and images and powers that are natural to the feminine are not allowed full development. When a woman is cut away from her basic source, she is sanitized, and her instincts and natural cycles are lost, subsumed by the culture, or by the intellect or the ego.’
Later, she says that this causes a woman’s personality to become ‘meager, thin, ghostly, spectral.’
However, as events around the world are showing us currently (and in no uncertain terms) the era of any woman, anywhere, living with a ‘meager, thin, ghostly, spectral’ expression of voice, is coming to an end.
I find this to be an incredibly exciting moment in history. I’ve known what it is to be mute. My journey with voice has shown me how impotent one can be without it, and conversely, what a gift voice can be: a sword to cut away what’s real and desirable and good from what is not.
It’s my firm belief that by finding our voice, we find who we are, what we most care about, and the courage to also take action: to create an all-new future, not just in a personal sense, but politically, socially and environmentally as well.
“It took me quite a long time to develop a voice and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent” – Madeleine Albright
Much of my work at BRAVA is dedicated to tracking the places where women habitually silence themselves – and to healing this rift. If this notion of inner silencing touches you in a sore place, do keep an eye on future editions of BRAVA Magazine, and also on BRAVA coaching: I’ll be diving into ways to find and empower your voice, in the weeks and months to come.