When I was growing up in San Francisco, singing choral music in the San Francisco Girls Chorus, I and my fellow choristers were, for the most part, learning to perform music that had, for most of its history, been sung by boys or men. One year, though, we were offered the chance to sing pieces from a rare collection of music written for the Venetian ospedali: a series of choral arrangements that had been composed in the seventeenth century, for unmarriageable or abandoned women living in convent-run group homes or orphanages. Inside the ospedali, which were meant to offer shelter and modest community to women who’d otherwise be destitute, the residents had formed choirs, which apparently had gotten so wonderful that composers like Vivaldi had traveled miles to compose for the women’s rich sound. The music, often set to cellos and violas, was sweeping and a joy to sing. But I also came to understand that this music — written if not by women, at least for women’s voices — was a rarity. The very fact of its presence was radical. Mostly, no one had ever heard women sing in public. Mostly, no one had heard women speak in public. Mostly, no one had allowed women to speak or sing in public, and mostly, women without proper attachments to men had been destitute. As we learned to carry these old songs forward, we also learned that we lifted our voices up against a much longer history of silence. Beyond the music were the centuries in which female voices, stories, perspectives, testimonies, poems, and truths were suppressed.
The strange weight of discovering this — of leaning into the heft of that absence — came back to me again as I read Rebecca Solnit’s passionate and haunting inquiry into the history of women’s silence, contained in her recent book The Mother of All Questions, which examines what it means for us now collectively to reshape the position of women’s speech. As we begin — in ways large and small — to chip away at these centuries of often violent silencing, Solnit reminds us of the many mechanisms by which women have been and continue to be denied voice, through time and in the present. Consider this, a quote from “The Public Voice of Women,” a noteworthy essay by classicist Mary Beard. “A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, not a woman.” If this is an ancient perspective about how women have been historically seen or not seen, heard or not heard, it also helps us ground and unpack the movement of daily life in American politics. It frames a world in which women who tell stories of abuse are dismissed; women who protest abuses of power are called shrill; and where women who claim positions of power on a public stage are demonized, sexualized, or threatened with violence.
Recently, when I wrote an editorial for CNN, talking about my own experience with gun violence, I received notes that threatened my life. One delightful letter that told me that because I differed with the letter writer on the terms of the Second Amendment, we as a nation should strip all women of the right to vote. Solnit herself routinely receives such letters and points out how often their writers want to re-silence women or to rob them of something: dignity, life, voice, civic rights.
The wonderful thing, though, is that Solnit reads these threats against and through a moment in which women, collectively, are breaking their silence, speaking and singing up and out and back — for and with one another. “If the right to speak, if having credibility, if being heard, is a kind of wealth, that wealth is now being redistributed,” she writes, noticing that this process itself could hardly be expected to be easy. “There has long been an elite with audibility and credibility, an underclass of the voiceless. As the wealth is redistributed, the stunned incomprehension of the elites erupts over and over again, a fury and disbelief that this or that child dared to speak up, that people deigned to believe her, that her voice counts for something.”
And yet in laying bare and historicizing the power relations concerning speech, in pointing out the scope of the violent histories that go into determining who has and who has not had the right to be heard, Solnit provides a road map by which we may begin righting ourselves, listening to each other, breaking through old traps and conspiracies. I have read many books about feminism; I chaired the high school chapter of NOW in the ’90s; my feminism made me the first woman in my family to attend what had been a men’s college. Sometimes I have felt that I have processed my feminism or that I live within it. This book made me feel urgent again, alive to this moment and its radical potential.
It made me honor what we are doing in chorus.
Image of Gala Concert in Old Procuratory for Czar’s Daughter (1780) by Francesco Guardi via Wikipedia.