Words of Resistance: Women’s Writings and Feminist Reading Practices

Words of Resistance: Women’s Writings and Feminist Reading Practices

Natália da Silva Perez


This essay is an invitation for feminist readers to actively engage in “reweaving the tapestry” of women’s intellectual history.[1] I start by tracing a sketch of how the expectation that women should remain silent arose in Western cultures: my examples range from antiquity to the early modern period, and come from diverse linguistic groups, illustrating that the trope of silence affects women all over the Western world. I subsequently proceed to show that this is not simply a literary trope affecting works of fiction: it can have drastic consequences for our understanding of women’s roles in history. Anybody—including scholars—can be influenced by a discursive horizon within which women are expected to have no voice. Next, I discuss a few concrete strategies that feminist scholars have used in approaching historical evidence about women’s lives, highlighting some of the benefits afforded by such strategies. In conclusion, I emphasise that writing and reading are entangled practices, and invite readers to take full responsibility for their roles in the process of making meaning from texts by women from the past.

Women’s Silence: A Brief History of a Trope

Women in Western[2] cultures live under the weight of a tradition commanding that they remain silent in public. For classical scholar Mary Beard, our imagination is permeated with “a long line of largely successful attempts stretching throughout Greek and Roman antiquity, not only to exclude women from public speech but also to parade that exclusion.”[3] Consider, for example, the excerpt below:

Mother, go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff… speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.[4]

This is an extract from The Odyssey selected by Mary Beard to show young Telemachus disrespecting his mother Penelope in front of a crowd of her unwelcome suitors, after she had asked a bard to stop playing a sad song “about the difficulties the Greek heroes are having in reaching home.”[5] It shows the act of silencing a woman as ingrained in the process of turning from boy to man, helping to constitute discursive aggression, and its celebration, as part and parcel of an ideal of masculinity.

Stories like this one from The Odyssey are part of a long tradition that has repeated and even celebrated the exclusion of women from public speech;[6] they became an important aspect of beliefs that, over time, helped calcify women’s discursive exclusion into a societal norm. Stories of silencing the voices of women, or of punishing women for using their voices in public, were repeated and reinforced: Penelope, Antigone, Echo, and Philomela come to mind as a few examples of this common trope. The utterance, repetition, and iteration of the story of silencing women has gradually over time bled power and authority from women’s speech.

If women were supposed to be excluded from public debate, it follows that formal education would be considered futile for them.[7] There exists evidence from Hellenic culture showing that some women received an education and knew how to read, but the evidence also shows that women were far less likely than men to be educated.[8] The topic of women’s education was quite often discussed by influential figures, and most of these intellectual men, with the exception of Plato in the Republic, were not very enthusiastic about educating women. If education for women was defended, it was in a qualified manner. Classical scholar Susan Ghettel Cole summarises:

Plato advocated equal education for women in the Republic, and even after retracting some of his more radical ideas on other subjects, still speaks in the Laws of educated women (658d). Theophrastos, two generations later, says that instructions in letters is necessary for women, but he qualifies his statement by saying that instruction should be limited to those items which are necessary for running a household. He says that intensive study makes women “lazy, babbly, meddlesome” (Stobaeus IV, 193, no. 31 Meineke). An unknown writer of New Comedy is far more spiteful. He says that teaching women letters does no good: “It’s just like giving venom to a viper!”[9]

The long Greco-Roman tradition that curtailed women’s right to speak in public came, eventually, to be entangled with Christianity.[10] In this context, it is not surprising that a particular Bible verse attributed to Paul the Apostle became a point of focus for the organised church:

Mulieres in ecclesiis taceant non enim permittitur eis loqui sed subditas esse sicut et lex dicit.

[Let women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted them to speak but to be subject, as also the law saith.][11]

A particular interpretation of this verse acquired prominence: it came to mean a strict directive for women to be silent.[12] This interpretation helped to discourage women from engaging in public speech in Christian societies, regardless of whether the context was the church or not. And, in such societies, female virtue came to be conceptualised as chastity, which required modesty.[13] If women aspired to be virtuous, they had to be chaste, and thus modest. In order to be considered as such, they needed to pay attention to their bodily behaviour and stay away from the public eye;[14] they should not participate in public debate, and hence they could not exercise a political voice. To do so, they needed to appear in public, and that would be interpreted as immodest.[15] Ancient Greek, Roman, and Christian traditions have performatively contributed to the process of siphoning women off, away from discursive authority. The long tradition of repeating that women must be silent influenced the process: there are other biblical verses encouraging women’s education, but they have not acquired nearly the same weight as the Mulieris Taceant.

Women have nonetheless always resisted these cultural norms restricting their intellectual activities. In the Western world, perhaps one of the most famous manifestations of such resistance can be found in Le Livre de la cite des dames (The Book of the City of Ladies), written in 1405 by Christine de Pizan. Here, Pizan imagines herself responsible for building an intellectual fortress for women, a place where women can be free and safe to learn, write, and live. In this allegorical first-person story, Pizan must herself undertake the enormous endeavour of building a city of ladies. For that, she receives the help of her learned and virtuous foremothers, wise and generous women who give Christine the physical, emotional, and intellectual support that she needs to build the fortress, helping her to strengthen her confidence in the abilities and virtues of her own sex.

In The Book of the City of Ladies, Pizan explains her motivation to write this story, referring to how she had felt devastated by the fact that so many of the scholarly accounts she had consulted spoke vehemently against women. Her own experience of the company of other women had taught her something completely different from what the scholars said, and she could not understand this contradiction. At first, fictional Christine says she felt slandered, discouraged; then she confesses that she started to doubt her own experience of women. She started to consider whether those scholars, who she had thought to be slanderers, might be right. She writes:

Mais j’eus beau tourner et retourner ces choses, les passer au crible, les éplucher, je ne pouvais ni comprendre ni admettre le bien-fondé de leur jugement sur la nature et la conduite des femmes. Je m’obstinais par ailleurs à accuser celles-ci, me disant qu’il serait bien improbable que tant d’hommes illustres, tant de grands docteurs à l’entendement si haut et si profond, si clairvoyants en toutes choses—car il me semble que tous l’aient été—aient pu parler de façon si outrancière, et cela en tant d’ouvrages qu’il m’était quasiment impossible de trouver un texte moral, quel qu’en fût l’auteur, où je ne tombe sur quelque chapitre ou paragraphe blâmant les femmes, avant d’achever la lecture.[16]

[No matter which way I looked at it and no matter how much I turned the question over in my mind, I could find no evidence from my own experience to bear out such a negative view of female nature and habits. Even so, given that I could scarcely find a moral work by any author which didn’t devote some chapter or paragraph to attacking the female sex, I had to accept their unfavourable opinion of women since it was unlikely that so many learned men, who seemed to be endowed with such great intelligence and insight into all things, could possibly have lied on so many occasions.][17]

Christine de Pizan writes that she had almost begun to be convinced that her efforts towards acquiring knowledge were in vain, perhaps even laughable. She started feeling alone in her desire to write and to pursue knowledge; she found no written authoritative account that could corroborate her own life experience. She describes how she felt affected by a sense of ridicule regarding her intellectual ambitions. Experiencing ridicule planted in her mind the seed of self-doubt; it began to inculcate in her the sensation that, because she was a woman, she was not as intellectually capable as a man. If Christine had given in to this self-doubt, this feeling could have suppressed her curiosity, her intelligence, her desire to write. But she looked into her own life experience and questioned this ill-feeling. She started resisting these received accounts about women—her real-life evidence contradicted them—and she observed that all of those speaking ill of the female sex were in fact men. Perhaps if more women could have a chance to be heard and demonstrate their intellectual capacity, such unfavourable opinions would not be so prevalent. She took up that task, in fiction and in reality.

For fictional Christine, the imaginary fortress of the City of Ladies served as a defence mechanism for women. For the real-life writer Christine de Pizan, The City of Ladies was her poetic argument in favour of women’s intellectual capacities. The Book of the City of Ladies is both a fictional safe space, and a real genealogy of women intellectuals, leaders, artists, and creators. While presenting the fictional story of this space of solidarity, where any woman could feel entitled to be an intellectual without the fear of isolation, violence, or ridicule, the book also provides the reader with a list of learned, virtuous, and courageous women whom Christine de Pizan wanted to celebrate.

Another French writer, the 17th-century Madame de Villedieu, also demonstrated a longing to celebrate through her writing the accomplishments of other women. In the first part to Les Annales galantes de la Grèce, published posthumously in 1687, she explains to her readers that, without stories about women, the portrait of the Greek nation would remain only half-way complete. Her book represents her small effort to redress this incompleteness:

… il me semble que les nations étant composés des deux sexes, on ne peint la Grèce qu’à demi, quand on peint que les grands hommes; ajoutons quelques traits à cette peinture et disons aujourd’hui quelque chose des dames.[18]

[… it seems to me that, nations being composed of two sexes, Greece is only halfway portrayed when we only paint great men; let us add some features to this painting today and say something about the ladies.][19]

Three centuries after Madame de Villedieu made this remark, and more than five and a half centuries since Christine de Pizan wrote The Book of the City of Ladies, another woman writer grappled with the desire to hear more about other women. On 22 January 1981, Marguerite Yourcenar gave her acceptance speech at the Académie Française as the first woman to be welcomed among its members. In her speech,[20] she wondered how it came to be that she was receiving this honour, how it came to be that her male peers welcomed her to the Académie, but not one single other woman before her. Yourcenar seemed sceptical about this exceptionalism. Many women writers, she felt, should have been there much earlier, but she was the first one. Accompanied only by the shadows of other women writers, Yourcenar said in her speech that she felt “tempted to become invisible to let their shadows pass.”[21]

Writing in 17th-century New Spain, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was also a fierce defender of women’s right to intellectual pursuits. In a famous letter that she wrote in defence of her right, as a woman, to pursue secular studies—the Respuesta de la poetisa a la muy ilustre Sor Filotea de la Cruz—she historicises the above-mentioned biblical verse Mulieris Taceant by Paul the Apostle. Based on the historical and theological sources available to her,[22] she explains to her readers that, in the period when Paul was writing, it was common for women to study together on church premises, so he was simply commanding them to be silent during the service. She rebuts the common practice of church authorities of evoking the verse Mulieris Taceant to justify barring women from education, arguing that the dictum had been historically misinterpreted due to misinformed “grammarians”:

Todo esto pide más lección de lo que piensan algunos que, de meros gramáticos, o cuando mucho con cuatro términos de Súmulas, quieren interpretar las Escrituras y se aferran del Mulieres in Ecclesiis taceant, sin saber cómo se ha de entender.[23]

[All this calls for more study than some people think, who as mere grammarians, or at most with four summary terms, want to interpret the Scriptures and invoke the Mulieres in Ecclesiis taceant, not knowing how it must be understood.][24]

According to Sor Juana’s reading of Paul’s texts, he in fact encouraged women to learn, and she provides support for this assertion by indicating the existence of another passage in the Bible where he refers to the potential for experienced women whose behaviour is saintly to be good teachers.[25] Her effort to contextualise the interpretation of the dictum indicates that she understood it as having been co-opted by church political authorities to keep women from studying.

In fact, in Sor Juana’s opinion, this very attitude of some church authorities went against Paul’s own teachings, resulting in an even more infelicitous situation. With so few educated women, there were also very few women teachers, so girls were educated by men, and that could be considered a threat to modesty. If there were more women capable of teaching, Sor Juana contends, Paul’s teachings would be more easily followed, and women could be educated by other women, in all chastity. Sor Juana mentions a plethora of examples of wise and knowledgeable women who used their skills for good:

…veo a una Débora dando leyes, así en lo militar como en lo político, y gobernando el pueblo donde había tantos varones doctos. Veo una sapientísima reina de Sabá… Veo tantas y tan insignes mujeres: unas adornadas del don de profecía, como una Abigaíl; otras de persuasión, como Ester; otras, de piedad, como Rahab; otras de perseverancia, como Ana, madre de Samuel; y otras infinitas, en otras especies de prendas y virtudes…[26]

[I see Deborah arbitrating militarily and politically, and governing a town where there were so many learned men. I see a very wise queen of Sheba… I see so many distinguished women: some endowed with the gift of prophecy, like Abigail; others with that of persuasion, like Esther; others with piety, like Rahab; yet others with perseverance, like Anna, mother of Samuel; and infinitely many others, gifted in other qualities and virtues…][27]

Notice how Sor Juana, intelligent and eloquent, had to make a careful effort to frame her defence of women’s right to education by using the voice of a church authority, cautiously toeing the line that circumscribed the gender roles of her time. She used this as a strategy to be heard by the authorities that surrounded her.

Throughout history, women have often been caught in situations where they had to invoke prejudices against their own sex in order to advance their needs. An example of this is the case of Mercy Harvey, an English woman who lived in the 16th century. In 1574, a married nobleman was flirting with Mercy, who herself belonged to the middling sort, and she was far from certain of the honesty of his intentions. It seems that Mercy wanted to judge it for herself, but she knew her brother Gabriel might intercept her correspondence with the man. To circumvent that danger, Mercy asked the nobleman to disguise his letter to her by signing it in her own name, as if it were from her to her brother, and to add plausibility to it, the handwriting should look bad, like her woman’s handwriting was assumed to look:[28] “write thus in the backside, in a small raggid secretary hand, —To mie loving brother, Mr. G.H., on of the fellowes of Pembrook hall, in Cambridg.”[29] We only know of all this because Mercy Harvey’s brother indeed got hold of the letter, and copied it into his commonplace book,[30] otherwise, it is unlikely that her writing would have been preserved. As a woman who did not belong to the elite, Mercy Harvey took advantage of the fact that she was not recognisable as someone who would receive a letter to correspond with her secret lover.

Women have always intervened in society, yet their interventions keep passing under the radar; they have always participated in the public sphere, yet their participation has been glossed over. If we consider storytelling as a practice that enables the making, validation, and communication of knowledge, it is important to consider whether the tropes of silence that we have inherited from history might have a more serious, more concrete implication for women’s lived experience.

Repercussions of the Trope of Silence

I argue that this old trope has contributed to silencing women in real life, since it has played a part not only in stories, but also in history, and consequently in historiography. Take, for example, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,[31] in which Jürgen Habermas theorises about the discursive dimensions of power dynamics. In this book, he posits that the public sphere is where political decisions are influenced by those who have stakes in those decisions. Although he provides us with a useful model to think about the role of socio-cultural forces for the history of democratic spaces, this book is also a blatant example of how particular gender-blind historiographical approaches can have the effect of distorting the role of women and even erasing them and their experiences from history.

Habermas proposes that a transformation of the public sphere started to take shape with bourgeois society in the 18th century, helped by the advent of newspapers and national media, although its seeds had already been planted a little earlier:

A new form of the representative publicness, whose source was the culture of the nobility of early capitalist northern Italy, emerged first in Florence and then in Paris and London. It demonstrated its vigour, however, in its assimilation of bourgeois culture, whose early manifestation was humanism; the culture of humanism became a component of courtly life.[32]

Women, however, are erased from the picture due to certain biases in how Habermas developed his model. First of all, there is a normative bias that views political decisions as influenced chiefly by “rational” debate:

Only after national and territorial power states had arisen on the basis of the early capitalist commercial economy and shattered the feudal foundations of power could this court nobility develop the framework of a sociability—highly individuated, in spite of its comprehensive etiquette—into that peculiarly free-floating but clearly demarcated sphere of “good society” in the eighteenth century. The final form of the representative publicness, reduced to the monarch’s court and at the same time receiving greater emphasis, was already an enclave within a society separating itself from the state. Now for the first time; private and public spheres became separate in a specifically modern sense.[33]

Habermas also has a geopolitical[34] historical bias. In an article entitled “Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: On the Legitimacy and Efficacy of Public Opinion in a Post-Westphalian World,” Nancy Fraser lists some of the unwarranted assumptions in Habermas’s model. She discusses some problems that arise from his Eurocentric analysis of the formation of a public sphere. According to Fraser, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere assumes the following:

1) a modern state apparatus that exercised sovereign power over a bounded territory…,
2) the participants in public-sphere discussion [are] fellow members of a bounded political community…,
3) a principal topos of public-sphere discussion [is] the proper organization of the political community’s economic relations…,
4) [the association of] the public sphere with modern media that, in enabling communication across distance, could knit spatially dispersed interlocutors into a public…,
5) that public-sphere discussion was fully comprehensible and linguistically transparent…,
6) the cultural origins of the public sphere [are] the letters and novels of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century print capitalism… [grounding] the structure of public-sphere subjectivity in the very same vernacular literary forms that also gave rise to the imagined community of the nation.[35]

Throughout history, there have always been cultural pressures that have helped to shape political dynamics. But this process is quite messy, certainly not purely rational, and contextually contingent. The example of women is telling. Indeed, as we have seen, although women have not been very welcome in legitimated public debates throughout history, they have managed to carve some space—however contingently and painstakingly—to make their needs and ideas heard. Numerous studies[36] show that The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere presents a skewed picture of societal communication. Naomi Tadmor puts it succinctly:

If Habermas presented the public sphere as bourgeois, modern, male, secular, rational, and structured essentially around the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, current scholars portray it as popular, early modern, wrought with religious debate, … crossing gender boundaries, and active since the early seventeenth century or even since post-Reformation debates.[37]

Since the publication of this seminal book, other scholars have developed other conceptual models, and Habermas himself has revised his thinking on the subject,[38] to account for the multiplicity of types of public spheres that come into conversation, as well as to account for the problems that arise from being excluded from those public spheres that are more legitimated than others. But, for the sake of my argument, one thing we can learn from the example of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is that, not only do scholars play a critical role in interpreting the terms of discourse within culture, but they are also inevitably influenced by the discursive horizon authorising their interpretations. And a possible consequence of this is that historical explanations of the delegitimisation of women’s engagement in discourse in society end up serving as the means by which the problem is perpetuated.

We always contrast what we learn with what we already know;[39] either in a specialised or in a lay context, there is always a danger of subsuming the new into the old. The problem with this common human tendency is that it serves as a gatekeeper: it lets certain ideas pass, but not others. We are accustomed to engaging in studies of women of the past in the terms that sound most familiar, and the idea that women were kept away from the public sphere is certainly familiar. Since writings by women of the past are not well known by the wider public, the frameworks available to talk about their writing is most commonly academic. When they are not academic, they are “translated” in terms of what is known by the wider public, and generally that means relating the work of women to that of men of the same period. This primes us on how to think about women writers, and consequently limits what we might think about them. Take, for example, the case of Virginia Woolf’s fictional character, Judith Shakespeare.

In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Woolf imagined a woman writer, Mary, who herself imagined another woman writer, Judith Shakespeare. Mary pondered the material conditions that can allow a woman to sit down and write: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”[40] In this nested storytelling, a woman who had privileged conditions to write is writing about another woman who has the same privilege imagining another woman who does not have this privilege. An important point of the story is how difficult it was for Mary to even imagine what the lives of women were like in the Elizabethan period. Mary says: “Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say.”[41] Even when Mary went through the trouble of trying to research women in the Renaissance in the library, there was simply very little information about them, and to her that was “deplorable.”[42] All that was available to her about early-modern women came from books written by men.[43] Based on the information she found, Mary was only capable of imagining someone like Judith Shakespeare—an abused woman who cannot pursue her intellectual talents and ends up committing suicide.[44] This is all that Mary can speculate upon[45] based on what men gave her as the ‘facts’ about Elizabethan women.

These ‘facts’ that give rise to the character of Judith Shakespeare in Mary’s imagination also help shape her as a tragic heroine: she is William’s fictional sister, she is as talented as her brother, and her talents are tragically wasted because of the living conditions that women purportedly experienced during the Elizabethan period. There is irony in Virginia Woolf’s formulation, an irony that stems from, and at the same time supports, her critique of the paucity of richer historical accounts about women. The character of Judith Shakespeare sounds familiar: we recognise her not only because she stems from the pen of Mary who stems from the pen of Woolf, an important, real woman writer, or because she shares a last name with an immediately recognisable, canonical writer; Judith Shakespeare’s story also has the right arc, towards doom. It is recognisable on many levels. Part of Woolf’s point was to highlight the fact that it was difficult for a woman writer to learn about women’s history, precisely because of the male bias in the few accounts that were available to Mary at the library.[46] Woolf did not denounce this problem directly, though: she told a story that implied this denunciation. Woolf’s irony works because Judith Shakespeare is a product of Mary’s meagrely fed imagination: it requires this context given within the story.

The problem with the figure of Judith Shakespeare travelling outside Woolf’s text and standing as shorthand for women in the early modern period is that we lose Mary, and then Woolf’s nuance is lost. If in her research Virginia Woolf’s Mary could have learnt about Christine de Pizan, perhaps she would not have imagined that Judith Shakespeare’s destiny was necessarily suicide. We now do know about women like Christine de Pizan, Sor Juana, Mercy Harvey, Louise Labé, Madame de Villedieu: we do know about women who wrote despite being encouraged otherwise, we know of the multiple uses they made of their education. What might our scholarly accounts look like if, instead of thinking through a metaphor like that of Judith Shakespeare, we thought through the stories of Louise Labé, or Mercy Harvey, or Sor Juana, or Madame de Villedieu?

Reweaving the Tapestry: Strategies for a Feminist Reading Practice

Lisa Jardine brings our attention to the need to constantly conceive of alternative models to think with, especially when the subject matter concerns gender.[47] She recognises that the interplay between history and historiography can have serious consequences. In “Unpicking the Tapestry: The Scholar of Women’s History as Penelope among her Suitors,”[48] Jardine discusses the problem of women’s authorial voice by invoking a concrete example from her own discipline of history. She mentions the reaction of a male historian to Natalie Zemon Davis’s book The Return of Martin Guerre (where he challenges what he sees as speculation on Davis’s part), and interprets his reaction as an act of questioning not simply the plausibility of Davis’s portrayal of Bertrand de Rols, but of the very authority of Natalie Zemon Davis as a historian.[49] Jardine even jokes that “One woman’s fact is another man’s fiction.”[50]

The problem of conducting research on women’s history is not simply one of a paucity of evidence, but that the evidence that does exist tends to be interpreted within an already established framework, often tainted by male-centred bias. Since the 1960s and 1970s, feminist scholarship has managed to draw attention to this problem, and has worked to counter it.[51] Feminists indeed have been working hard for women to be recognisable as knowledge-makers in their own right. Today, women are active in many realms that were almost unthinkable just 60 years ago, but they still have to make concessions, as they had to do in the past. These concessions are so commonplace that I can’t help but think of Paulo Freire: Do women need to struggle just to step on the other side of the privilege line?[52] Is it really true that women must wrest from men the right to use their voices?[53] As we can see, the question is not only one of history, of course, but also of historiography. Feminist historians have been contributing studies that provide support for a shift in perspective, an effort that Lisa Jardine herself acknowledges and contributes to:

Fortified with the great wealth of ‘incremental women’s history’, which has recovered and enriched our understanding of women in past time, we must now begin again to reweave the unwoven tapestry, reweave our ruptured historical narrative again and again in pursuit of that new history in which women’s and men’s interventions in past time will weigh equally… It is not yet clear to me where that new historical narrative will lead, but it will surely take us away from the continuing of women’s history within the traditional discipline of which all of us are all too aware.[54]

We need to start weaving a different tapestry, as Lisa Jardine suggests. Without Mary, we must let go of Judith. I say that we need to recruit other stories, other existing knowledge, to formulate other, multiple metaphors that allow us to imagine and speak about women from the past in their true diversity.[55] As historian Hayden White explains, “events are made into a story by the suppression or subordination of certain of them and the highlighting of others, by characterization, motivic repetition, variation of tone and point of view, alternative descriptive strategies…”[56] A scholar uses the same tools as any other storyteller in order to build a world in the imagination of the reader. Linguistic tools, like metonymy and metaphor, serve to build frames, mental spaces that allow us to understand ideas that are new to us in terms of things we already know.

Texts written by women who lived in the past, much like those written today, reflect not only their author’s own ideas at the moment of writing, but also the general contexts[57] in which these texts originated.[58] The existence of a cultural attitude of discouragement did not keep women from thinking, writing, having ideas—unlike what Virginia Woolf’s Mary was led to believe in her fruitless search at the British Library. On the contrary, in fact it encouraged some women to fiercely resist the silence imposed upon them.

However, we have also seen that, in order to carve out their space in the public sphere, women have often had to abide by tacit rules that only recognise them as creative beings insofar as what they create is comparable to standards imposed by a male-oriented tradition. Women’s strategies have been to improvise with what was available,[59] but it is not always straightforward for those of us encountering their texts in the 21st century to understand their contingent strategies.

It is along an axis of temporal dimension that social rituals, community rules, and tacit conventions congeal and form something that we perceive as common sense.[60] Judith Butler argues that “one ‘exists’ not only by virtue of being recognised, but, in a prior sense, by being recognizable.”[61] Being recognisable is a matter of conventions[62] which, as Butler explains, come about as “the effects and instruments of a social ritual, often through exclusion and violence.”[63] For these conventions to emerge, acquire their status as legitimate, and function as a structure through which communication can take place in society, they require time. Like other conventions, discursive practices also acquire legitimacy over time, with repetition. Butler also advances another hypothesis: that language has a certain power to injure.[64] Throughout her work, she tries to come to grips with what exactly constitutes this injury.[65] Thomas Laqueur, in his exploration of the history of discursive constructions of sex, remarks that “[t]he fact that pain and injustice are gendered and correspond to corporeal signs of sex is precisely what gives importance to an account of the making of sex,”[66] pointing to a similar interplay between words and material reality as the one suggested by Butler. For Karen Barad, “[d]iscursive practices define what counts as meaningful statements.”[67] Statements are not meaningful in isolation; they acquire different meanings within the wider cultural context where they are interpreted; that is to say, the cultural context shapes the horizon of acceptable discursive practices at a given historical moment. If the hypothesis that the use of language has the power to injure has any bearing, perhaps a converse hypothesis could also be plausible: the use of language might be a good defence against such injury, or at least a counter measure.[68]

These two hypotheses taken together suggest that women are placed in a position of vulnerability when they are discouraged from engaging in public speech. Throughout history in the Western world, an insidious cultural surveillance has affected women’s ability to participate in the production of knowledge and culture and, when they have participated in this production, the discursive horizon has hindered the validity of their contributions to knowledge and culture by constraining the interpretation of their works. Moreover, having had less access than men to education and intellectual creative practices throughout history,[69] women have been deprived of the tools to effectively communicate their own experiences and insights: their situated knowledges.[70]


The tropes that reinforce the idea of women as silent have helped to stall the contribution of women as a group to our collective imagination.[71] Because our collective imagination remains impoverished of stories in which women are able to counter the prevailing discursive violence to which they are subjected, we are primed to believe that women are indeed less able to do so; we are primed to more easily recognise women as discursively helpless, with no authority.

With painstaking effort, women throughout history have fought to be recognised as authors, and in many cases have managed to be recognised as such. But if, generation after generation, those women who are recognised as authorities are constantly branded as the exception, women in general remain unrecognisable, even as individual women are recognised. For those of us interested in engaging in a feminist reading practice, one of the crucial tasks is to pay attention to the intellectual activity of women on their own socio-historical terms. Resistance through writing also requires resistance through reading.


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———. “Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: On the Legitimacy and Efficacy of Public Opinion in a Post-Westphalian World.” In Transnationalizing the Public Sphere. John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

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[1] Lisa Jardine, “Unpicking the Tapestry: The Scholar of Women’s History as Penelope among Her Suitors,” in Reading Shakespeare Historically (Taylor & Francis, 2005).

[2] Although there are practices of silencing women in non-Western cultures, the performative process through which these practices came to be is not the same as in Western cultures. Thus, I will refrain from generalising the causes. Nonetheless, the effects of negating women’s public voices are just as problematic.

[3] Beard mentions passages from Aristophanes, Ovid, and others to demonstrate the efforts that were made to ridicule the idea that a woman might speak in public. Later in the essay, she shows that ridicule was not the only tactic, as violent images of cut tongues and murders abound as metaphors for the silencing of women. Mary Beard, “The Public Voice of Women,” London Review of Books, 20 March 2014.

[4] Quoted in Beard.

[5] Beard.

[6] For an account of this type of practice in philosophy, see Genevieve Lloyd, The Man of Reason: “Male” and “Female” in Western Philosophy (Routledge, 2002).

[7] Even Juan Luis Vives, an early modern pedagogue who was favourable towards women’s education, feels the need to carefully justify the specific contexts and ways in which this education should happen. See particularly the preface to Juan Luis Vives, The Education of a Christian Woman: A Sixteenth-Century Manual (University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[8] For her study of women’s literacy in Ancient Greece, classical scholar Susan Ghettel Cole explains that she defines literacy “as knowledge of the alphabet and the ability to write one’s own name and to read simple formulaic expressions.” Her findings indicate that “generally speaking […], it is clear that literacy is not universal in antiquity, that the level of literacy varies from place to place and from time to time, but in all places women are less likely to be literate than men.” Susan Guettel Cole, “Could Greek Women Read and Write?,” Women’s Studies 8, no. 1/2 (January 1981): 129.

[9] Cole, 137.

[10] Lloyd, The Man of Reason provides a compelling discussion of this history. See in particular Chapter 2, where she discusses the examples of Philo, Augustine and Aquinas, who “attempted to harmonise Judaeo-Christian theology with Greek philosophy. Their use of male-female symbolism to describe Reason occurs in a context of interpretation of the Genesis stories of Eve’s subsidiary creation out of Adam’s side, her subordination to Adam, and her role as temptress in his fall.” p. 22.

[11] “First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians,” in Latin Vulgate Bible, chap. 14: 34, accessed 2 August 2015, http://www.latinvulgate.com/lv/verse.aspx?t=1&b=7&c=14.

[12] King and Rabil Jr. trace the long-lasting negative interpretation of these verses to Tertullian (On the Apparel of Women), Jerome (Against Jovinian), and Augustine (The Literal Meaning of Genesis). Margaret L. King and Albert Rabil Jr., “Editors’ Introduction to the Series,” in The Education of a Christian Woman: A Sixteenth-Century Manual, The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2007), xiv.

[13] For example, Juan Luis Vives writes: “A woman’s only care is chastity; therefore when this has been thoroughly elucidated, she may be considered to have received sufficient instruction.” Vives, The Education of a Christian Woman, 47.

[14] Modesty and chastity were explicitly conceived as types of bodily behaviour, and Margaret L. King cites a particularly relevant example of this: “Barbaro described the bearing proper in a woman: ‘I therefore would like wives to evidence modesty at all times and in all places. They can do this if they will preserve an evenness and restraint in the movements of the eyes, in their walking, and in the movement of their bodies; for the wandering of the eyes, a hasty gait, and excessive movement of the hands and other parts of the body cannot be done without loss of dignity, and such actions are always joined to vanity and are signs of frivolity. Therefore, wives should take care that their faces, countenances, and gestures… be applied to the observance of decency. If they are observant in these matters, they will merit dignity and honour; but if they are negligent they will not be able to avoid censure and criticism.’ Laughter is to be eschewed: ‘This is a habit that is indecent in all persons, but it is especially hateful in a woman.’ As for women who talk too much, ‘Loquacity cannot be sufficiently reproached in women,… nor can silence be sufficiently applauded.” Margaret L. King, “Daughters of Eve,” in Women of the Renaissance (University of Chicago Press, 1991), 40.

[15] Margaret L. King, “Virgo et Virago: Women and High Culture,” in Women of the Renaissance (University Of Chicago Press, 1991).

[16] Christine de Pizan, Le livre de la cité des dames (Stock, 1986), 36.

[17] Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, trans. Rosalind Brown-Grant (Penguin UK, 1999), chap. 1.

[18] Marie-Catherine Desjardins Villedieu Madame de, Annales galantes de Grèce (Claude Barbin, 1687), 3.

[19] My translation.

[20] “Discours de Réception de Marguerite Yourcenar | Académie Française,” accessed 6 May 2016, http://www.academie-francaise.fr/discours-de-reception-de-marguerite-yourcenar.

[21] My translation. “Discours de Réception de Marguerite Yourcenar | Académie Française.”

[22] George O. Folarin and Stephen O. Afolabi, “Christ Apostolic Church Women in Dialogue with 1 Corinthians 14 34 36,” Verbum et Ecclesia 33, no. 1 (February 8, 2012), https://doi.org/10.4102/ve.v33i1.731; D. W. Odell-Scott, “Editorial Dilemma: The Interpolation of 1 Cor 14:34-35 in the Western Manuscripts of D, G and 88,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 30, no. 2 (Summer 2000).

[23] Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, “Respuesta de La Poetisa a La Muy Ilustre Sor Filotea de La Cruz,” 1691.

[24] Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (my translation).

[25] “Anus similiter in habitu sancto, bene docentes.” Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

[26] Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

[27] My translation.

[28] Heather Wolfe, “Women’s Handwriting,” in The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing, ed. Laura Lunger Knoppers (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[29] Quoted in Eve Rachele Sanders, “She Writes,” in Gender and Literacy on Stage in Early Modern England, Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 166.

[30] Sanders, 165.

[31] Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society (MIT Press, 1991).

[32] Habermas, 9.

[33] Habermas, 10.

[34] See Fraser’s discussion of Habermas’ assumption that nation-states are based on the Westfalian model. Nancy Fraser, Transnationalizing the Public Sphere (John Wiley & Sons, 2014).

[35] Nancy Fraser, “Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: On the Legitimacy and Efficacy of Public Opinion in a Post-Westphalian World,” in Transnationalizing the Public Sphere (John Wiley & Sons, 2014), 11–12.

[36] For overviews, see John L. Brooke, “Reason and Passion in the Public Sphere: Habermas and the Cultural Historians,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 29, no. 1 (June 1998): 43–67; Andreas Gestrich, “The Public Sphere and the Habermas Debate,” German History 24, no. 3 (August 2006): 413–30.

[37] Naomi Tadmor, “Revisiting the Public Sphere and the History of the Family,” in Vänskap Över Gränser: En Festskrift till Eva Österberg (Lund, 2007), 217; quoted in Eva Osterberg, Friendship and Love, Ethnics and Politics: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern History (The Natalie Zemon Davis Annual Lectures), vol. 1 (Central European University Press, 2010).

[38] For a theoretical approach, see Jurgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (MIT Press, 1998); for an overview of different historical approaches, see Brooke, “Reason and Passion in the Public Sphere.”

[39] See Benjamin K. Bergen, Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning (Basic Books, 2012), chap. 8 for a discussion of the role of context and environment for human understanding.

[40] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Grafton, 1977), 7.

[41] Virginia Woolf, 52 (my emphasis).

[42] “But what I find deplorable, I continued, looking about the bookshelves again, is that nothing is known about women before the eighteenth century. I have no model in my mind to turn about this way and that.” Virginia Woolf, 50–51.

[43] “Professor Trevelyan is speaking no more than the truth when he remarks that Shakespeare’s women do not seem wanting in personality and character. Not being a historian, one might go even further and say that women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time—Clytemnestra, Antigone, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Phedre, Cressida, Rosalind, Desdemona, the Duchess of Malfi, among the dramatists; then among the prose writers: Millamant, Clarissa, Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Madame de Guermantes—the names flock to mind, nor do they recall women ‘lacking in personality and character.’ Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room.” Virginia Woolf, 48–49.

[44] Woolf writes: “This may be true or it may be false—who can say?—but what is true in it, so it seemed to me, reviewing the story of Shakespeare’s sister as I had made it, is that any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.” Virginia Woolf, 55–56.

[45] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would say that Mary has fallen prey to the dangers of a single story. And Adichie would add that “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is ‘nkali.’ It’s a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another.’ Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, ‘secondly.’ Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story,” October 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en.

[46] “A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.” Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 49–50.

[47] Though, as I see it, the same applies to discussions of race/ethnicity, class, and other types of constitutive exclusions.

[48] Jardine, “Unpicking the Tapestry: The Scholar of Women’s History as Penelope among Her Suitors.”

[49] See also “Agential Realism: How Material-Discursive Practices Matter” Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Duke University Press, 2007), chap. 4.

[50] Jardine, “Unpicking the Tapestry: The Scholar of Women’s History as Penelope among Her Suitors,” 143.

[51] For different perspectives on feminist engagement with women’s writing and knowledge-making practices, see the following: Margaret W. Ferguson, Dido’s Daughters: Literacy, Gender, and Empire in Early Modern England and France, vol. 1 (University of Chicago Press, 2003); Linda J. Nicholson, The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory (Psychology Press, 1997); Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, This Bridge Called My Back, Fourth Edition: Writings by Radical Women of Color (SUNY Press, 2015); Rosemarie Buikema and Iris van Der Tuin, Doing Gender in Media, Art and Culture, vol. 1 (Routledge, 2009).

[52] Paulo Freire and Myra Bergman Ramos, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Continuum Publishing Company, 1970).

[53] Foucault asks: “Do the workings of power, and in particular those mechanisms that are brought into play in societies such as ours, really belong primarily to the category of repression? Are prohibition, censorship, and denial truly the forms through which power is exercised in a general way, if not in every society, most certainly in our own?” Michel Foucault and Robert Hurley, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction, vol. 1 (Pantheon Books, 1978), 10.

[54] Jardine, “Unpicking the Tapestry: The Scholar of Women’s History as Penelope among Her Suitors,” 144.

[55] Commenting on Shakespeare’s practice of what could today be recognised as code-switching, Michael Neill asserts that “What such restless switches of perspective do is to subject the audience themselves to unexpected forms of translation, bearing them across from a point of view to another… it is what in its most intense and extraordinary moments creates the illusion (which the discovery literature of the period never manages to supply) of crossing over into the Other, whether its name is Caliban, or Shylock, or Joan la Pucelle, or Othello.” Neill goes on to conclude that “it is partly because Shakespeare more than any other writer of his period is capable of glimpsing how it might feel to inhabit the other side of the mountain that he is worth the endless labour of the form of translation that we call criticism.” Michael Neill, “‘The Figure of Transport’: Shakespeare and Translation” (4th TEEME Conference, Paris, 2015); But we do not need to give up on the beauty of Shakespeare’s texts to appreciate their partiality: each of them will never be anything but one story. As Adichie puts it, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story.”

[56] Hayden White, “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 84.

[57] Butler conceptualises the dynamics between the author’s own ideas and the cultural context in which they are inserted by building upon Bourdieu: “The habitus is not only a site for the reproduction of the belief in the reality of a given social field—a belief by which that field is sustained—but it also generates dispositions which ‘incline’ the social subject to act in relative conformity with the ostensibly objective demands of the field.” Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (Psychology Press, 1997), 155.

[58] Laura Lunger Knoppers, “Introduction: Critical Framework and Issues,” in The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 14.

[59] For other examples of women adapting to a discursive context centred on a male point of view, see Wendy Wall, “Dancing in a Net: The Problems of Female Authorship,” in The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance (Cornell University Press, 1993).

[60] For a discussion of the mechanisms of shared awareness between humans from a formal logic point of view, see Morris F. Friedell, “On the Structure of Shared Awareness,” Behavioral Science 14, no. 1 (January 1, 1969): 32–33, http://search.proquest.com/docview/1301273044/citation/CB27A0578AC54467PQ/1. Friedell formally demonstrates that “If something is common opinion, it is common opinion that it is common opinion… Public opinion, then, acts in a special way like an individual consciousness, and can be considered as a generalised Other.” From there, he continues on to suggest a taxonomy of “common sense,” and defines it as “that which is common opinion between typical strangers in a culture, or among all who are full participants in a culture.” Finally, he explains that “Probably assumed common sense tends to be ontogenetically and phylogenetically prior to self-consciously private opinion, as awareness precedes self-awareness.”

[61] Butler, Excitable Speech, 5; See also Butler, The Psychic Life of Power; Judith, “Merely Cultural.”

[62] Butler explains: “Whereas illocutionary acts proceed by way of conventions (107), perlocutionary acts proceed by way of consequences. Implicit in this distinction is the notion that illocutionary speech acts produce effects without any lapse of time, that the saying is itself the doing, and that they are one another simultaneously.” Butler, Excitable Speech, 17.

[63] Butler, 5.

[64] Butler writes: “When we say that an insult strikes like a blow, we imply that our bodies are injured by such speech. And they surely are, but not in the same way as a purely physical injury takes place. Just as physical injury implicates the psyche, so psychic injury effects the bodily doxa, that lived and corporeally registered set of beliefs that constitute social reality. The ‘constructive’ power of the tacit performative is precisely its ability to establish a practical sense for the body, not only a sense of what the body is, but how it can or cannot negotiate space, its ‘location’ in terms of prevailing cultural coordinates.” Butler, Excitable Speech, 159–160.

[65] Butler, 159; Butler, The Psychic Life of Power; Judith, “Merely Cultural.”

[66] Thomas Walter Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender From the Greeks to Freud, vol. 1 (Harvard University Press, 1992), 16.

[67] Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, 146.

[68] Butler also points to the catch 22 in which the resisting party ends up caught: “Insurrectionary speech becomes the necessary response to injurious language, a risk taken in response to being put at risk, a repetition in language that forces change.” Butler, Excitable Speech, 163.

[69] Ferguson, Dido’s Daughters: Literacy, Gender, and Empire in Early Modern England and France; Natalie Zemon Davis, “City Women and Religious Change,” in Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays (Polity Press, 1987); David Cressy, “Literacy in Context: Meaning and Measurement in Early Modern England,” in Consumption and the World of Goods, ed. John Brewer and Roy Porter (Routledge, 2013); Sara T. Nalle, “Literacy and Culture in Early Modern Castile,” Past & Present 125 (November 1989): 65–96.

[70] Donna Haraway, Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, vol. 1, 2000.

[71] “The collective imagination is not a kind of ‘group think’. It is not the big-brother society or even the bog society. It is not the state direction or government planning. Rather it simply echoes the reality that societies as well as individuals create, and both create through the medium of paradoxical imagining.” Peter Murphy, The Collective Imagination: The Creative Spirit of Free Societies (Routledge, 2016), chap. 6.


I was born and raised in São Paulo, but moved to Montreal at the age of 20 for a B.F.A. in Theatre and Francophone Literature. During my M.A. in Performing Arts Studies (Brussels/Seville), I started to pursue interdisciplinary research, linking my interest in theatre with a newfound curiosity about women’s history. This paved the way for my PhD (Canterbury/Berlin), which focused on the work of early modern women playwrights. My most recent work involved research on the history of women’s religious rituals in the Old City of Jerusalem. Now, as a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Privacy Studies at the University of Copenhagen, I am turning my attention away from women’s public voices to study the history of privacy.

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