No Words: What happens when a woman’s voice has been denied?

9 Jan

by Marilyn Fontana (Koester)

Image“Personally, I disagree with their ideas.

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.

But what is one to do?”

– Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper”

As I was creating my syllabus for a Literary Heritage course this morning, I was struck by the number of fiction selections illustrating the precise opposite of my previous blog post here at Leadership Voices. Yes, I do include numerous women of words in our studies, but what about their characters? What can fictional protagonists teach us about the dangers of having no voice? Although numerous examples of strong female characters exist, my students, and literary society at large, continue to be drawn to stories where the female protagonist, at least from the story’s onset, has no agency, no power and no voice. In just one semester, my literature students will read a slew of stories depicting the dangers of losing one’s ability to be heard. These stories teach us the alternative paths that we may take if we fail to use our voices and value our rights. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” tells us that a woman will hallucinate and become mentally unstable. William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” tells us that she will resort to a definitive lapse in judgment about time and mortality. Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat” tells us that she will be beaten and cursed upon. John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” tells us that she will be thrown to the side of the road and disregarded. [full texts provided below]

Of course, this is not to say that every quiet woman will turn into a beaten insane person with a penchant for necrophilia. These literary examples show the extremes of such powerlessness. But how extreme are they? The “rest cure” treatment for what we would now call post-partum depression in 1899’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” uncovers the horrors of outdated and counterproductive treatments of women by a patriarchal medical society. Today in 2013, women stand on the battleground for reproductive and health rights often curtailed by our current government and medical organizations. Delia in “Sweat,” published in 1926, undergoes repeated beatings and continuous verbal and physical abuse from her husband. In Memphis, where I live, there were more than 2000 “reported” domestic violence crimes in 2011, 21 of which resulted in murder.[i] “The Chrysanthemums” from 1938 metaphorically illustrates the depressed and isolated state of a farmer’s housewife. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women are currently 70% more likely than men to suffer from depression during their lifetime.[ii]

The stories we read may date back 60, 80, even 100 years, but the truth lying beneath the entertainment continues to reveal itself to us today. We can learn from these literary lessons and encourage our own voices. If you are hurting or lonely, turn to a family member or friend. If you feel passionately about the latest potential change in political policy, get on the internet and find out how you can become a part of the movement that could affect that policy. Don’t let your passions be thrown on the side of the road. Pick them up and pursue them. It’s a new year and a fresh start for continuing to engage ourselves. Read, educate and encourage yourself this year. Your voice and your story have value, not only for you…but for all of us.

“Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at de sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.” ― Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road

“The Yellow Wallpaper” –

“Sweat” –

“A Rose for Emily” –

“The Chrysanthemums” –

2 Responses to “No Words: What happens when a woman’s voice has been denied?”

  1. lynnolsen January 10, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    Thoughtful, thoughtful article. Thank you.

    • marilynbk January 10, 2013 at 6:51 pm #

      Thank you, Lynn, for stopping by…happy reading

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