In a literary group with which I was affiliated, it was discovered that one of the male leaders had been preying, systematically, on vulnerable women.
It had been going on for a while. The different women involved had not initially spoken out, because he had intimidated them into remaining silent, or because they were afraid to expose themselves to gossip and dissection. Or, perhaps, because they worried they would not be believed.
The recent scandal of sexual assault cover-ups at the notoriously conservative and repressive Christendom College provides clear evidence that such worries are not unfounded. Not only did the school authorities dismiss and disregard the victim’s claims; after the story was made public, commenters came forward, not to deplore the moral failure of the institution, but rather to attack the victim.
The institution takes precedence over the person, at colleges like Christendom – and also in politics, in the workplace, in Hollywood. The woman who speaks out can expect to be silenced and ridiculed, because believing her requires a massive ideological shift, from idolizing to criticizing. It means losing heroes. It may even mean losing popularity and support. The institution protects itself.
The man who was preying on women, like so many other men, expected the women to stay silent. He could be confident in his safety because he knew that women don’t even need to be told to shut up; we shut ourselves up, because we’ve been trained to keep our voices down, to listen when powerful men speak, even to praise and echo them, because in their strength lies our protection.
This happens frequently in academic mentorship. A woman’s best bet in certain male-dominated fields such as philosophy is to latch onto a powerful male advisor who will enjoy her adulation – there is usually at least a whisper of sexuality about this – and make her his mouthpiece.
A Tale as Old as Myth
In the story of Echo and Narcissus, the nymph Echo was stricken with silence by the goddess Juno, in retaliation for her helping to cover up Jupiter’s infidelities. Echo was complicit with the less powerful “other women” with whom the king of the gods consorted, and in return she was punished. She, not Jupiter. He was too powerful. Juno couldn’t lash out at him, but she could punish him by punishing his female conquests – even the ones who had no choice in the matter (if “consent” is even a possibility, when it’s the king of the gods) – the ones whom he’d kidnapped and raped.
The punishment for Echo? To lose her voice, since it was with her voice that she had told stories to distract the queen of the gods, while her husband went about his philandering.
This is the mechanism of patriarchy, that a woman scorned turns not against the man who wronged her, but against the “other woman.” She has to do something. She must feel the violence of her rage, enacted in revenge, and it’s the other woman who feels it.
And so Echo is silent, able only to repeat the words that are spoken to her. When she meets the beautiful young hunter Narcissus, she is infatuated with him, but he loves only himself, his own image. As he gazes longingly at that remote and flickering image in the water, the beautiful face he doesn’t even recognize as his own reflection, and he speaks words of feverish desire.
Echo repeats these words. It’s all she can do.
When I read Ovid’s depiction of this myth many years ago, I was instantly struck with a sense of familiarity. I too have been Echo, silent except for when allowed to speak the words some man already uttered – some man infatuated with ideas and constructs that are really only images of himself.Kierkegaard remarked at one point that it was a good thing Socrates was ugly, because that meant his disciples followed him for his thought alone, not seduced by personal glamor. I can’t help but imagine Socrates – the true philosopher, not the narcissistic ideologue – passing by the pool near which poor Narcissus lay pining, seeing his own snub-nosed face reflected, and laughing. Socrates, who when the women are all evicted from the room, in Symposium, sneakily reintroduces the female voice, when he quotes his teacher Diotima as the one true master of the philosophy of love.
In the contemporary academy, we could use more of Socrates and less of Narcissus. Instead of powerful men obsessed with their own image and silencing women, degrading women’s work, we need men who amplify female voices. Male scholars who shrug off the work of women because these women only “got there” through their connection to a man are being deliberately obtuse (I’m trying to imagine them simply as stupid, not as deliberately cruel) – because for most of history, the only entry a woman had, to the chambers of power, to the places where she might be heard, was via a male patron. Or husband. Or lover. There were almost no female communities where women could protect and mentor one another, because women – unlike other subjugated groups -didn’t exist together en masse, but were isolated in separate households. The Bronte sisters happened to find their own writers community, supporting one another, but one wonders whether any one of the three could have made it, had she been entirely on her own.
So it’s the male-dominated communities women have work to enter, male mentors we have to win. Protection of these relationships can mean lashing out at other women, even when it’s the man at fault. And it can also mean joining in the chorus of voices that defend the institution, because otherwise, the institution might reject her. Her place within it is so tenuous, if she doesn’t play the part of Echo to the men.
The man who was preying on women made a serious mistake in the case of this particular group, because it was a group committed to providing a platform for, and amplifying, female voices. Not only the women, but the men as well, were dedicated to the care of the person over the reputation of the group. The women cared for one another, trusted one another. They told their stories. The others listened. And justice was done: the predator was kicked out.
But for so much of history, the women keep quiet. Our stories get told by men, Helen gets blamed for Troy, Mary Magdalene gets turned from Apostle to Prostitute, Joan of Arc gets burned, and when we try to tell our own stories we’re attacked for subverting the comfortable narrative. Thomas Jefferson is a hero, okay? Don’t muddy the waters by bringing up that whole slavery-rape thing. Don’t make us feel uncomfortable. Don’t make us shift the paradigm.
Paradigms are shifting, though. New stories are being told. For some, this may threaten their security: the predators who thought women would be silent, and the powerful who enjoy their privilege at the cost of others’ subjugation. But, to paraphrase Azar Nafisi, “how wonderful it is, to be a woman and a writer” at this time.
I encourage other women writers not to silence the other women around you, not simply to compete for the few places we are allowed in the patriarchy, but to join together in creating newer, broader spaces, where we can all be heard.
One of my intentions for my blog, beginning this year, is to expand it into a platform for different women’s voices, within and affiliated with Catholic culture. Recently I have published several pieces by guest writers, male and female, on issues of gender, sexuality, and equality. I encourage you, if you have a story to tell, and no place to tell it, to contact me.
image credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/76/Stilke_Hermann_Anton_-_Joan_of_Arc%27s_Death_at_the_Stake.jpg