All the ways we silence women

Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, was interrupted 44 times in her testimony before Congress.
Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, was interrupted 44 times in her testimony before Congress. NYT

In North Carolina last week, Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 297 that, in part, bans state funding for family-planning services for groups that provide abortions – a move that, the N&O noted, targets Planned Parenthood.

When Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, testified before Congress last month, members of Congress interrupted her 44 times as she tried to answer their questions.

Last month in Asheville, the two male owners of a coffee shop were outed as misogynistic podcasters, tweeters and bloggers. On these various platforms, they denigrated women and revealed that they think of women as having one function: sexual objects for men. In one tweet, the duo wrote, “Beginning to find feminine submissiveness almost as important as beauty. Almost.”

Though individually very different, together these examples highlight the ways that women are silenced on a small and large scale. For women to be silenced means that their voices are taken away, denied or muted. Silencing women is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It’s a human rights issue.

In Rebecca Solnit’s 2014 book “Men Explain Things to Me,” she writes about this silencing, noting that women have to fight “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.”

To understand what Solnit means, look at House Bill 297.

This bill takes away women’s voices by denying them services that could help them decide when and if to have children – targeting, in particular, women who cannot afford or do not have insurance that will cover private doctors’ visits.

This bill also denies that women have a voice at all. Where are the voices of women who actually use Planned Parenthood’s family planning services? Their voices were ignored or, perhaps, not considered in the first place.

Because these voices were silenced, they were not, in Solnit’s words, “acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths.” They were not given value.

As the Asheville coffee-shop scandal shows us, government proceedings are not the only times women are silenced. In their tweets and blog posts, these two men referred to women as “notches” and “plates,” among other more obscene epithets. Referring to women as these inanimate objects makes women less than human. And if something is less than human, it doesn’t have a voice. If something is less than human, it doesn’t have rights.

In her book, Solnit added, “Having the rights to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty.”

In North Carolina, and in the United States, women are not always given the option to show up, as in the case of House Bill 297.

Yet even when women show up, they are often denied their right to speak. It’s what happened to Richards when she testified before Congress. Ostensibly, we can say her voice was heard. Yet when someone is interrupted 44 times, how much is she really speaking? And, importantly, is she being heard?

This is not to say that all women are voiceless. Some women are heard. Some women are running for president. Yet these women are but a tiny percentage of the women in the United States.

All women have the right not only to show up and speak but also to be heard. It takes vigilance by us all to make sure these rights are not denied.

Leslie Maxwell of Durham is a writer and adjunct professor of English at Meredith College.