By Antonia Ravesi
Trigger warning, this article refers to violence and sexual assault.
While avoiding my uni essay, I found myself, down a cyber rabbit hole and reading a blog in the Guardian, on the ‘Top Ten Sexist Moments in Politics,’ 15 June 2013 by Emine Saner. There was a consistent theme. The women profiled experienced hostility because they had a voice, and it got me thinking.
We all know the old descriptors, “the little woman, meek, mild and silent.” In “How to Be a Good Wife,” a home economics textbook from 1954, women were provided with a step-by-step guide to how to dutifully perform the evening routine. Apart from having dinner planned and ready for your husband when he got home, women were expected to be immaculately groomed, and most importantly quiet.
Women were told that the man should be able to speak about his day as his topics of conversation were more important. We were asked not to “complain” and to speak in a “low, soothing, pleasant voice.” He was not to be questioned for “he is the Master of the house and as such will always exercise his will with fairness and truthfulness. You have no right to question him for a good wife always knows her place.”
The history of silencing women can be documented back to Aristotle, the Greek Philosopher who said, “Silence is a woman’s glory.” In the 16th & 17th Centuries, humiliation and even mechanical interventions were used to keep women quiet. Women considered too loud or outspoken would be gagged and put on display in the village square, made to hold derogatory signs. Some women were tortured and made to wear a hard iron mask, called a scold bride, a collar and strip of iron that went across the woman’s nose and cheeks and sometimes into their mouth, so that she could not speak.
So, has it changed? Women now have greater access to traditionally male dominated career realms, we no longer must sit in the car while our male colleagues drink in the front bar, and yes, we can vote but can we speak and if we speak are we listened to? The consistent reports in the media would indicate not, for it appears that when women do speak up, they are subjected to name-calling and stereotypical typecasting. The ABC series ‘Ms Represented’ hosted by Annabelle Crabbe and released last year, explored the history of women’s experiences in politics. The stories women told were of commitment, and resilience but they also spoke about sexual harassment, bullying, constant type casting and at times vilification for their abilities and their status as women.
In January of this year, sexual assault activist Grace Tame was publicly vilified for not playing nice during her outgoing ceremony as Australian of The Year. Grace broke the rules by not making the “Master of the House” Scott Morrison feel comfortable, despite having on multiple previous occasions openly expressed her position on Scott’s Morrison’s management of the sexual assault disclosures of female staff working at Parliament House. There was public support, but there were also multiple comments on her lack of manners, her ungratefulness for her position and slights on her integrity. Interestingly these came from both men and women as a response to her speaking up.
Grace Tame was speaking her truth, on the very issue for which, she had been given the title of Australian of the Year. Uncomfortably for some, she used silence, traditionally a punishment used against women.
According to the World Economic Forum, 2021 “Diversity efforts may have given women a seat at the table – or, in the context of the pandemic, a place on the Zoom call – but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have a voice.”.
We have some way to go before women’s voices will hold equal weight but for now as women, we work together to create opportunities and spaces where women can speak up, debate and critique. We are not a homogenous group; women have multiple voices and all have the right to be heard.