The silent woman

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“The real trouble about women is that they must always go on trying to adapt themselves to men’s theories of women.” —D. H. Lawrence

“It has taken me most of my 40 or so years as a conscious person to realize: I don’t owe anyone an explanation.” – Me

Today I read an article by Danish writer Dorthe Nors on the invisibility of middle-aged and older women. She writes: “A middle-aged woman who’s not preoccupied with handling herself or taking care of someone else is a dangerous, erratic being. What is she up to? And what’s the point of her being up to anything?” It fell in my lap at the right time, seeing as how I’m sidled right up to middle age, and have always been a bit invisible anyway.

In that sense I, perhaps wrongly, feel like I can see this clearly and objectively, but I doubt this is true. Perhaps it is, as one dear friend commented when I shared this article, “I think middle age must come as much more of a shock to women who fit the current standards of beauty. For someone to whom men have never paid much attention, there is not much difference in how we are considered in middle age. While difficult to deal with when young, you are forced to find your self-worth outside of a man and man’s view of you at an earlier age.”

This article arrived at a moment when I was otherwise contemplating commitment and choice. We are led, at least by the media, to believe that our choices become ever-more limited, and scarcity rears its terrifying head – in the workplace, in terms of potential relationship or sexual partners, even in our friendships. I don’t think any of this is as acute as we’re told, but it is also not universal. It depends on you, where you are, what you are doing, what you want and all kinds of other factors. In the midst of all the infernal thinking, someone said to me, referring to more specific things than I thus applied it to, “There are still a number of points ahead of you at which your life branches off in multiple directions. You still have options, choices.” Logically I know this but a combination of inertia and grief, and a soupçon of fear, has stopped me in my tracks. I feel a bit like I have been shaken awake and have no time to lose.

But a lot of sluggish meandering through literary contemplations on women, communication, relationships and marriage had to happen first.

Finding a voice

For a lot of women, finding their voice – the voice that represents them truly, not just the voice and content she uses as a conciliatory mediator, but the voice and content as the one who gets labeled as a bitch or troublemaker or a roadblock simply because she actually is the smartest one in the room, knows what she is doing and has thought through all the potential outcomes and problems. The voice that is not just a cushion, a boomerang, a mirror for something a man says or does, but the voice that is not afraid of or concerned with how she is perceived. This is mined with risk. It is all easier said than done. It’s not just having the knowledge and eloquence to hold forth on a given subject, it’s as Rebecca Solnit posits, just being able to assert the right or space to say anything at all:

Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. Things have gotten better, but this war won’t end in my lifetime.” –Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

I am not sure how much of my own difficulty in asserting myself is rooted in age-old shyness (as opposed to my being female). But, as an adult, I also live in Sweden, so I don’t find that men are quite as domineering, particularly when they have sought out my expertise in my own field. Right after I wrote that sentence I happened to see this opinion piece by Paulina Porizkova on feminism. She realized when she moved to Sweden as a child that suddenly “my power was suddenly equal to a boy’s”. In the Swedish world, “the word ‘feminist’ felt antiquated; there was no longer a use for it”; after all, “Women could do anything men did, but they could also — when they chose to — bear children. And that made us more powerful than men.”

It was only later, in comparing the roles of women in her native Czech Republic, in Sweden, in France and finally the United States that she could embrace the need for feminism:

“In the Czech Republic, the nicknames for women, whether sweet or bitter, fall into the animal category: little bug, kitten, old cow, swine. In Sweden, women are rulers of the universe. In France, women are dangerous objects to treasure and fear. For better or worse, in those countries, a woman knows her place.

But the American woman is told she can do anything and then is knocked down the moment she proves it.” –Paulina Porizkova

I also tend to have the upper hand in business dealings because everyone else is using English as a second or third language, and it’s my first. But I certainly recognize that battle of trying to gain the right to speak. And the ability to say what I want or need to say without being interrupted or talked over or “mansplained to”. This isn’t scientific, my observations/thoughts. But being this insular, shy person for my entire life, while teeming with vociferous opinions, thoughts and ideas, I experience the ongoing struggle, but then I also experience this with louder, more domineering women who stubbornly want to hear the sounds of their own voices and repetitive thoughts (they’ve probably learned to behave this way because they too are fighting for a space for their voices). I also keenly feel that these communication difficulties (not mine specifically but more general, gender-related mismatches) have informed my opinions on male-female communication, relationships, and have contributed a lot to my desire to be alone.

It often takes us such a long time as people to find our true voices, to be ourselves, that it’s a shame that it’s twice as hard for women of all ages under most circumstances, and that by the time we as middle-aged women find our voice and claim the agency to speak openly and freely and to demand the floor, so to speak, we are silenced by this invisibility (or as Alex Qin explains in her SkillShare TechSummit 2017 keynote, linked above, being hypervisible and invisible at the same time).

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