“How do we find our true voices?”
Within each of us, a true voice carries the radiance of our humanity. The voice contains our deepest feelings, our spiritual longings, our hopes, fears and personal truths. Each voice speaks uniquely. Each needs to be heard…We need to create environments in which we listen to each other—not to impress with pretty sounds or speeches, but to allow the truth of our lives to be heard. How do we find our true voices? How do we listen? (Hale, 1995, p. 31).
For most of my life, I have been on a quest to find my voice. As a child, I was silenced, first by my father’s rages, then by his and my mother’s constant derision at my dream to be a writer. “Sometimes there are pressures from her culture that say her creative ideas are useless, that no one will want them, that it is futile for her to continue…That is what poisons the psyche” (Estés, 1992, p.305). My father held that I would never earn my keep writing, never be successful. Pipe dreams! My mother thought it was just plain foolish, and that I should get down to the business of finding a husband. Even when a professor wrote in his evaluation of my work that I was gifted and his only student to write a piece that he considered publishable, my parents pshawed. Women didn’t write books—they got married and had children.
In my fantasies, I was certain that I wasn’t my parents’ child—I was such a great disappointment to them. I didn’t like to play with dolls, to wear dresses, to cook, to do “housework.” While my little brother hung out in the kitchen baking with my mother (he had his own child-sized baking pans), I was up in a tree reading, or galloping through the woods on my horse (loosing my inner wild-child), or sitting by the burbling brook writing.
As a child, I was aware of the different standard for women and girls. My brother, five years younger than I, had no curfew, no questions asked, whereas I, at 18, had to be in by 10 p.m., had to tell my mother where I would be and with whom, and leave a phone number. In my youth, I was resistant. Although physical and emotional abuse left me silent and lacking self-esteem, hidden deep within was an indomitable spirit. Speaking out was impossible, but our little actions can speak volumes.
I lived in a small town and attended the junior-senior high school where we, the girls, had a rigid dress code. We had to wear nice dresses to school. The boys could wear whatever they wanted as long as they were neat. In 1969, I was 12 years old and in the seventh grade. Women’s liberation was happening. My friends and I decided that it was time to ditch the dresses. Why should we have to wait for the bus with naked legs exposed to the cold? To sit primly with our legs crossed so that boys couldn’t look up our skirts? To be confined in our movements? I spent a few afternoons at my friend Ellen’s house calling girls from school, urging them to wear pants to school on a given day. The night before the big event, I stayed overnight at Ellen’s—her parents were sympathetic and supportive. We wore our pants to school. When the principal called us to the auditorium, we were sure we would be expelled. Instead, our organized disobedience won us the right to dress as we chose.
“Before we can find our voices we have to trust that we are worth listening to and that we will be heard” (Hale, p.25). While an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts, I studied creative writing. It was still my passion despite my parents’ attempts to squash it out of me. The abovementioned professor took me under his wing, offering guidance and encouragement. After a year of working with him, he led me to the proverbial mountaintop and told me to fly with my newly unfurled wings. He advised me to stop taking writing classes, saying that they would ruin my fluid style.
I did not heed his advice. I did not trust. Instead, I felt terrified, bowed under a great burden. “Other times she is under attack by those around her, or by the voices yammering in her head: ‘Your work is not right enough, not good enough, not this enough, not that enough. It is too grandiose, too infinitesimal, too insignificant, takes too long, is too easy, too hard’” (Estés, p. 306). Having taken all the classes offered at the undergraduate level, as a junior, I enrolled in a graduate writing class.
It was one of the most devastating experiences of my life, my small, tentative voice—snuffed out like a match flame in the wind. Not only was I the only undergraduate in the class and the youngest person, I was the only woman in a class with 22 men and a male professor. Two men in the class, one of them gay, were kind to me. The rest of them? They were very frank. As a woman, I had nothing of value to say to them. My work was not worthy of their notice for I wrote from a woman’s perspective.
If art is not to be life-enhancing, what is it to be? Half the world is feminine—why is there resentment at a female-oriented art? Nobody asks The Tale of Genji to be masculine! Women certainly learn a lot from books oriented toward a masculine world. Why is not the reverse also true? Or are men really so afraid of women’s creativity (because they are not themselves at the center of creation, cannot bear children) that a woman writer of genius evokes murderous rage, must be brushed aside with a sneer as ‘irrelevant’? (Sarton, p. 64).
I stopped writing. I stopped writing for almost 30 years. Even though the guys in the class were blatantly arrogant and sexist, and I knew it, I lacked the courage and the confidence to push back—one against 21 was more than I could take on.
When women began to speak about themselves, they were not understood. Men had established a code of regulations for the making and judging of art, which derived from their sense of what was or was not significant. Women…could not occupy center stage unless they concerned themselves with the ideas men deemed appropriate. If they dealt with areas of experience in the female domain, men paid no attention…[W]omen whose work was built on their own identity in terms of female iconography have been treated by men as if they were dealing with masculine experience. This is a false assumption since the cultural experience of women has differed greatly from that of men (Chicago and Schapiro, “Female” 40, cited in Chansky, 2014).
I have spent years believing that experience trampled the tender shoot that was my voice, ground it into the dirt. That both is and isn’t so. That experience provided the nudge to turn my focus to the visual arts, and ironically, to mediums that traditionally belong to men. I became a sculptor, shaping metal with hammer and fire. I worked in an art foundry, first as a finisher, which required excellent hand-eye coordination, skilled use of a variety of hand and power tools, and an eye for detail. Later I moved into the gating department, which I found much more challenging as it required an aptitude for engineering as well as precision. Both in the welding studio and in the foundry, I worked confidently alongside men who respected my skill and craftsmanship and my critical eye.
Creativity is not a solitary movement. That is its power. Whatever is touched by it, whoever hears it, sees it, senses it, knows it, is fed. That is why beholding someone else’s creative word, image, idea, fills us up, inspires us to our own creative work…For this reason, a woman’s creative ability is her most valuable asset, for it gives outwardly and it feeds her inwardly at every level: psychic, spiritual, mental, emotive, and economic (Estés, p. 299).
At the deepest level, I have always defined myself first and foremost as a creative person. Writing, sculpting, weaving, designing beautiful spaces are as important to me as breathing. An attack there is a dagger in the heart. Working side by side with men in the studio as colleagues, as friends and equals sharing the creative process was healing. During this time, I felt a new sense of empowerment, which extended to other parts of my life.
How one lives as a private person is intimately bound into the work. And at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition, and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity, self-doubt, extravagance of feeling, guilt, joy, the slow freeing of the self to its full capacity for action and creation, both as human being and as artist, we have to know all we can about each other, and we have to be willing to go naked (Sarton, p. 77).
For ten years I hosted a late night show at a community radio station in Maine. At the beginning of each show, I would do what my listeners fondly called “the Monologue”, talk about an experience I’d had, or an insight into a problem, or a lesson I’d learned from my spiritual practice. During my first few years on-air, only men called me, and most of them called to try to pick me up. One night, I received an obscene phone call. It frightened me, as I recognized the voice as that of a man I’d met recently who lived nearby. The studio was all glass overlooking the moonlit bay. I felt exposed. Then I was overcome by feelings of outrage. I talked to friends about the call. Two of them, who were also involved with the station (one being the station manager), asked me not to speak about the call on-air as they worried that talking about it would encourage more obscene calls. I could not keep silent.
“A woman having a voice in the world is a political issue. If we can’t know and give voice to our innermost selves then we risk being controlled by those with the strongest voice which, in our society usually means rich, white men” (Hale, p. 26). I spoke up. I spoke of the power and seduction of radio—that friendly, warm voice—so easy to create a fantasy around a disembodied voice late at night. I spoke of women as mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, friends, lovers—all deserving respect as all people deserve respect. I said that I am a woman, someone’s daughter, sister, friend, lover and that I, too, deserved to be treated with respect, that obscene phone calls were not acceptable.
Speaking with intention creates change. After that night, I never received another obscene call, and all the guys who called regularly to plead for a date vanished. And women began calling me. A number of women called or wrote to me to share their experiences and to thank me for speaking out.
Throughout my life, I have been aware of gender issues and felt angry wanting to fight for change, but often I felt impotent. Coming from a history of abuse, it was difficult to overcome my lack of self-esteem and self-confidence to take action. Having lived most of my life in silence, trying to be invisible to be safe, speaking out was terrifying.
What I have learned about myself is that I am strong and have an indomitable spirit even when it’s cloaked in silence. My task is to speak up in the face of injustice and to help others to do the same. “To have a voice is to have power in the world” (Hale, p. 27).
Chansky, R. A. (2004). When Words Are Not Enough: Narrating Power and Femininity Through the Visual Language of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, Auto/Biography Studies, 29:1, 51-77. Retrieved 6 January 2015.
Estés, C. (1992). Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine Books.
Hale, S. (1995). Song & Silence: Voicing the Soul. Albuquerque: La Alameda Press.
Sarton, M. (1973). Journal of a Solitude. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.