Women and Silence: Is Your Voice Being Heard?

Silent Woman plaque for Women and Silence blog post

Many years ago, my family spent a glorious summer in Maine while my husband attended classes at a local college. We rented a cabin on a pristine lake. Green manicured lawns led down to a sandy beach. Canoes and rowboats, picnic tables, and a swing set for the kids were all at our disposal. The days were sunny and warm, the nights star-filled and perfumed with pine. For two months, we lived in an enchanted world.

The enchanted world was also a traditional one. Our cabin had been in the owner’s family for decades, and the rules and decorum of past decades still held. Nearby, the small college town was traditionally charming and quaint. We did not go into town very often, except on the few occasions when we dined as a family at a well-established restaurant called The Silent Woman. See its sign above and below, an ad it ran in Ebony in 1970. Ebony ad for The Silent Woman for Women and Silence blog post

All these years later, this image has stuck with me: an image of violence and horror, of misogyny and gallows humor. What shocks my older self is that not once do I remember ever remarking on the depiction of the decapitated woman holding a serving tray, obviously silent because she has no head. I, too, was silent—in my anger, shock, and disgust, silent to myself and to others.

Back then, I was a silent woman—not because someone had chopped off my head—but because as a girl child I was tutored by my parents to be unoffending and pleasant; to be accepted. To be acceptable required that I act demure and accommodating at the expense of my own inclinations and feelings. The assumptions of that time, mid-to-late twentieth century, held that men were naturally superior, stronger, more rational than women, and that women were naturally inferior intellectually, and emotionally unstable compared to men. Men were thought to be the born leaders, the decision-makers with the power to name and dominate their world.

The Silent Woman restaurant in WI in 2015 for Women and Silence blog postCultural norms seem to have changed since then, but have they? What are the prevailing assumptions about gender? What was not so long ago unsayable for women—their experience of gender-related suffering and abuse—is no longer forbidden, but as we have sadly witnessed in public affairs, women speaking their truth are not necessarily believed.

One of the consequences of speaking out but not being heard or believed relates to what Carol Gilligan and her co-author Lyn Mikel Brown began investigating in the 1980s and 1990s, tracing the coming-of-age journey of pre-adolescent girls into adulthood.

What the authors concluded then still holds true: girls entering adolescence learn to suppress their authentic voices so as not to appear “stupid” or “be too loud” or to signal whatever the current detested outsider label may be. Their book, Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development (1992), based on a Harvard project, interprets interviews with 100 girls between the ages of seven and eighteen over a five-year period and traces their psychological development from childhood to adolescence. In this book and in her later work, Gilligan exposed how girls learn to self-censor in order to “be in a relationship.” If speaking out jeopardizes a girl’s place in the pack, even if her silence fills her with shame and a feeling of inauthenticity, she might sacrifice speaking her truth for the sake of approval and belonging.

As long ago as 1931, in “Professions for Women,” a famous speech to the National Society for Women’s Service, the British author Virginia Woolf described something she called “The Angel in the House,” a phantom that haunted her as a woman writer. This phantom would appear to her when she sat down to write and taunted her with self-doubt. How could she, a woman, ever presume to write a novel? The Angel, which in all effects was a demon, thwarted her real voice and her real thoughts. ”I will describe her as shortly as I can,” Woolf wrote. “She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish….” The Angel in the House demanded she be tender; flatter, deceive… and never let anyone guess you have a mind of your own.” Woolf concluded that out of necessity to write, she had to murder the Angel in the House.

Scold bridle illustration for Women and Silence blog postFor women born into more recent times, Woolf’s Angel may seem old-fashioned and irrelevant in the era of Beyoncé, Rihanna or Nadia Murad, just as for Woolf, in early twentieth-century England, the fact that in sixteenth-century England a woman accused of gossiping or speaking out of turn was called a “scold” and fitted with a bridle, an iron muzzle and bit placed over her head and clamped against her tongue, must have seemed like ancient history.

We may now present ourselves as fist-in-the-air strong, feisty, sassy, and outspoken—but the struggle to tell our stories in our own voices without fear of reprisal continues. In many countries, a woman’s simple act of speech is a transgression. Our right to be witnessed, respected and heard is a relentless quest.

This quest is not only about image—do we look and sound strong?— but also about authenticity. Do we feel safe enough, secure enough, self-believing enough to show others our true self? Does our “outside “ reflect what’s inside? Can we enter public space with confidence in our ability to make ourselves heard? How much self-censoring do we do? Can we trust ourselves to listen to our still small voice and trust its truth?

While this piece addresses women directly, its message extends to any marginalized group that feels jeopardized by the dominant culture.

Russian poster for Women and Silence blog postIn her book When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, the activist and writer Terry Tempest Williams begins by telling the reader that her mother, who died at the age of 54, had bequeathed Terry her journals but asked her to promise not to open them until after she died. When the author opened her mother’s journals, she found all the pages blank. Tempest writes: “What was my mother trying to say to me? Why did my other choose not to write in her journals? Was she afraid of her voice? Was she saying ‘Use your voice because I couldn’t or wouldn’t use mine’?”

This profound legacy belongs to all of us who attempt to write on the blank pages of history. What do you find unsayable that needs to be spoken?

In closing, here are two opposing passages that state what’s at stake. Which do you claim and own?



turning into my own
turning on in
to my own self
at last
turning out of the
white cage, turning out of the
lady cage
turning at last
on a stem like a black fruit
in my own season
at last

—Lucille Clifton, from An Ordinary Woman


What becometh a woman best, and first of all? Silence. What second? Silence. What third? Silence. What fourth. Silence. Yea, if a man should aske me till Domes daie I would crie silence, silence.

—Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique, 1560

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

Mother’s Day 2015: Struggling with Being a Mother and a Writer

As Mother’s Day 2015 approaches, I feel called to write about a subject I’ve lived intimately, a subject I’ve explored in The Conditions of Love and is now shaping my new novel Digging To China—the conflict many women feel between their creative and domestic selves.

Mother. Writer. Are these dueling destinies? How much do the roles oppose? Do the separate roles fracture our identities? How permeable or dense is the membrane between them? Mother. Writer. Where can we find the energy, the juju, the concentration, the tremendous love, care, and devotion needed in equal measures in both domains? Do you know what I’m talking about? I think you do!

Here’s what I can tell you about my own experience: I struggled. And I still struggle with finding a balance between putting myself into my written work and into relationships.

I love these two poems for their recognition of the split between the “milk-giver” and “the moon-ridden girl.”50s

Night Feeding
Muriel Rukeyser

In Mind
Denise Levertov

Even before I took up writing professionally, I was jolted awake by the voices of certain poets, women poets who were shoving open the windows of their houses and shouting in wrath and fury, despair and righteousness, about their lives.

The essay that I read and reread dozens of times, that spoke to me so directly I was astonished anyone could know so much about my life was Adrienne Rich’s When We Dead Awaken: Writing As Re-Vision. Her words startled me into recognition of my own guilt, my own confusion and isolation.

She writes:

 …I was also determined to prove that as a woman poet I could also have what was then defined as a “full” woman’s life, I plunged in my early twenties into marriage and had three children before I was thirty…I went on trying to write: my second book and first child appeared in the same month…If there were doubts, if there were periods of null depression or active despairing, these could only mean that I was ungrateful, insatiable, perhaps a monster…about the time my third child was born, I felt that I had either to consider myself a failed woman and a failed poet, or to try to find some synthesis by which to understand what was happening to me.

To feel oneself a monster…to suffer this in silence…to be at odds with one’s deepest desires…and to be isolated in one’s suffering—do these conditions still exist for women writers who are raising families (and male writers who are the primary caregivers in their homes)?

KaliThe truth is, the very attributes that contribute to a rich, deep, profound, and thrilling creative life are antithetical to sustaining a stable home. Writing, at least as I know it, thrives on the chaotic and unpredictable shifts and flashes of the imagination; it demands devotion, loyalty, ruthlessness in the face of despair, enormous amounts of energy and attention—all of which might otherwise be directed toward one’s beloveds.

Rich says:

But to write poetry or fiction, or even to think well…a certain freedom of mind is needed—freedom to press on; to enter the currents of your thoughts like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not suddenly be snatched away… To be maternally with small children all day in the old way, to be with a man in the old way of marriage, requires a holding-back, a putting-aside of that imaginative activity and demands instead a kind of conservatism…

Your attention suddenly snatched away. Split loyalties. The soccer game, the swim team, the poem, the essay: they all shouted at once, a confused and confusing cacophony that sent me hurrying in ten different directions.

But like Rich, I felt rise up in me an unquenchable desire to speak the truth about things unsaid and unspoken. I housed a hunger I hadn’t let myself feel until I heard the words of other women writers describing, most desperately, their hunger to have a voice. This is what we can do for each other: mirror, echo, witness, model.

creation-of-the-birdsOver time, I’ve come to adopt a different perspective, one that expands the view of what we are doing when we continue to embrace the warring imperatives of our souls—what the Jungians call holding the tension of the opposites. By creating a literal home we build a place to contain and house all our parts. This place/space holds our love, our security, grounds and shelters us against storms and unpredictable weather—I mean the turbulence inherent in a creative life. We need our homes just as our homes need us; we need a place where the offspring of our imaginations can grow and thrive.

Terry Tempest Williams writes with great eloquence about women’s voices and women’s silences in her poignant memoir, When Women Were Birds, an ode to her mother who died of cancer at 54. Her mother had bequeathed the author her journals—all of them blank inside. Williams writes:

She left me her “Cartographies of Silence.” I will never know her story. I will never know what she was trying to tell me by telling me nothing. But I can imagine.

terry tempest williams book coverAfter reading When Women Were Birds, it struck me that I did not know my own daughters’ experiences of what it was like growing up with a mother who also happened to be a writer. So I asked them each if they would write a few words for this blog.


  1. I recall falling asleep to the click, click, click….. zing… of the typewriter in the room next door.  There was something rhythmic and reassuring about it.
  2. I grew up with poetry infused into everyday life in a way that most don’t.  It was not uncommon to have you recite a poem (not necessarily yours; often not) in what seemed like random moments.  Before meals… at gatherings…   And to this day, I think I’ve picked up this propensity.  I’m often quoting/reciting poems or openings to books… quotes… at random moments.  I reference you whenever I do this with new people.  I just say “I grew up in a house with a writer.”
  3. Honestly… there were books everywhere in our house.  Before the bookshelves were built in the living room and sunroom, there were piles of books everywhere.
  4. You have this incredible and unique capacity to offer exactly the right “text” to someone (including me) at precisely the right moment.  Did then, still do.
  5. I have poetry books you gave me as a kid (kid versions) that I still have poems memorized from (e.g., “Who has seen the wind…” or “Jenny kissed me when we met…”)
  6. You seemed to struggle then (and still do) with trying to find a balance between being in your writing space and in normal everyday space.  When we were growing up, your writing space seemed to be more around the margins of your life with us (after hours… when we were at school). Now it is pretty central. But I think there is still the tension of how to immerse and be present with your writing and not disappear forever.  Not that you’d want to. . . but it seems the structure of when to go in and then pull out was more defined by us and your wanting to be present with us.

Dale & Young Daughters canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northeastern Minnesota

Jessica: Growing up with a mom as a writer certainly set me aside from my friends. I was encouraged to learn the language of colors and moods, not of apple pie and golf. My friends did not make the acquaintance of Mary Oliver, Robert Frost, or the man at the mic bravely sharing his work at a poetry reading on campus. A world unheard of by my friends was at my fingertips. Beyond poems and prose was the way I was encouraged to view the world: ripe, aging, new, dying, tragic, humorous, raw… full of suffering and hidden miracles. I would not trade my upbringing, second daughter of an amazing writer, artist, and poet. I am lucky to have learned and lived (and still do!) the language and veil of creativity from the best, my mom.

My daughters have been kind. Hugely supportive, always. I was, at times, a “space cadet,” a distracted mom, cranky and preoccupied, sometimes gone for weeks at a time to write, but I’ve always been haunted by what Jung said: that our children live out our unlived lives. And so, isn’t it better to live our passions honestly and not drop the burden of unfulfilled desires onto our kids? We never do know when we are launched on creative projects that compel and enthrall us—raising children, writing a novel—how smooth or bumpy the road will be. But follow it we must. And if we are lucky, as I have been, our children will also reap the rewards.

Dale & Adult Daughters at Luna Loon Lodge, Conover, Wisconsin