Are you among the first women in your family to have a public voice?
I’ve been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast, Magic Lessons. In season two, we meet Hope Hill, a poet who wants to take her work into the world, but fear holds her back. Elizabeth Gilbert asks her to make a list of women in her family’s history who never had a public voice and describe the lives of women that brought her into the world at this moment of history.
Hope describes her mother and grandmother as having many children while working full time and being in unhappy marriages to intense, controlling men. Further back, her ancestors were slaves. She is indeed the first woman in her family to have a public voice.
Some of our mothers may have had opportunities to speak—if their race and class allowed and they worked incredibly hard and they survived the harassment. But with a few noteworthy exceptions, our mother’s mothers and beyond hardly stood a chance.
While the waves of feminism in the twentieth century launched many women into the public arena, the effects weren’t broadly inclusive or immediate. We got to vote, but additional rights and cultural change took decades to trickle through society and still don’t reach everyone, but women kept raising their voices louder and louder.
Then, the internet arrived. Blogs, social media, audio and video sharing, and self-publishing gave us reasonable access to a public voice. Gatekeepers, mostly white men, lost their stranglehold. This, along with the continued fight for gender, racial, and LGBTQ equality, birthed a generation finally capable of speaking to the world without excessive barriers.
Feeling the full weight of our place in women’s history knocked me back. So many of us are the first generation of women with a public voice—no pressure or anything.
In this context, Hope Hill’s fear makes a lot of sense. It makes sense that following centuries of belittlement, abuse, and repression, it takes courage to speak our truth. In addition, having a public voice still does not mean we are safe, for speaking out can earn women death threats. Needless to say, Hope Hill is not alone in her apprehension. I feel nervous simply sharing this post. The question, Who am I to make such claims?, repeats in my head as I write, and I brace for rebukes after each paragraph. Did I get everything absolutely correct? Will this offend? Do I sound stupid? I just won’t post this.
Our fear makes sense, but it’s not leading us in the best direction. I am so grateful for Elizabeth Gilbert, Brene Brown, Chimamanda Adichie, Sheryl Sandberg, and other women for broadcasting the unconditional need for our creative voices in the world. They talk about courage, vulnerability, creativity, and feminism in a way that countless women, including myself, crave to hear. They invite us to find our courage to speak to a public audience, for without believing in our own voices, we won’t use them. And the world needs to hear what we have to say.
Just as valuable as sharing our voice is the ability to listen. Now more than ever, we can hear each other without filters. We can hear the strength, the wisdom, the humor, the beauty, and the compassion of women beyond our neighborhood, school, or social circle. By listening, we can see ourselves in countless lives, especially the lives of women of color whose truth has been ignored longer and silenced harder than any other.
As all of this collides—our right to speak, our means to speak, our courage to speak, and our wisdom to listen—power erupts. I believe that the #MeToo movement happened at this time in history because all these things co-occurred (along with a tipping point of misogyny). Women found the courage to speak and listen. The moment was perfectly ripe, the results amazing.
Not everything will be as monumental as #MeToo. Some movements are small. Some creations are purely for the joy of it. Having been silenced for so long, it might feel like we can only speak about the most imperative issues or that there is too much to say, but we have enough breath for all of it. Share your poems, your jokes, your fashion tips, your life’s purpose, your trauma, your vision. What stories will bubble up now that so many voices are free? What tale does your heart want to tell?
As exciting as this is, our chorus is not yet complete. There are still many women in our society that do not have a public voice. Look around to see who is silent in your community. Women in our country without the correct documentation cannot speak up without great risk to their lives, and women around the world still struggle to gain fundamental rights. We can definitely share some of our breath about this.
We have our voice now—what a privilege, an opportunity, a responsibility to share our truth. In addition to #MeToo, what else do we need to claim? What else can we hear from our fellow mothers, sisters, and daughters? Let us garner our courage and make ourselves proud.
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