The Intersection of Language, Gender, and American Politics

“Without choice, no politics,
no ethics lives.”

— Marge Piercy, from the poem “Right to Life”

What happens when the dominant, privileged voice excludes women, LGTBQ people, people with disabilities, people of color, and immigrants? It would be difficult to miss the fight over these issues currently taking place on the national political stage. These same issues have long been present in the culture. In Hollywood, the #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite movements have drawn attention to the ways in which marginalized voices have been denigrated. Women in music rebutted Grammy President Neil Portnow when he told female musicians that it was their responsibility to “step up” if they wanted equality in music. And in literature, arguments about which voices are privileged above others have been a topic of discussion for decades, although the past few years have seen industry changes in response to writers’ demands. What becomes evident as more people speak up and demand change is just how much those voices have been silenced in the past. The effects of silencing go beyond those voices being simply “missing” from our TV screens, or on our radios, or in our books. Silencing produces the kinds of results that emerged in a Supreme Court decision of June 26th.

One of the consequences of the exclusion of certain voices was elucidated most recently in the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, No. 16-1140, when Justice Thomas, writing for the majority, affirmed that spaces calling themselves crisis pregnancy centers (CPC) were under no legal obligation to explain all of the choices a pregnant woman is entitled to make about her own pregnancy. California law “requires the centers to post notices that free or low-cost abortion, contraception and prenatal care are available to low-income women through public programs, and to provide the phone number for more information.” Lawyers for the CPCs argued that mandating the information that workers were required to give to patients was a violation of their First Amendment rights. In the decision, Justice Thomas cited the First Amendment: He argued that private clinics could not be compelled to repeat government speech because it would, indeed, violate the First Amendment rights of the workers at the clinics.

Justice Breyer wrote the dissent (readers can access the full decision here) and reminded his colleagues that they had advocated double standards when presenting information to pregnant women. SCOTUS has long affirmed that state mandates that women’s medical clinics that provide abortion services must provide information on adoption and other options for carrying a fetus to term. SCOTUS stated its position most forcefully in Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in which the court approved a “script” that detailed how the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania “strongly urges” patients to contact these other agencies before going through with the abortion the patient had scheduled. As Breyer pointed out, the simple adage of “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” which has often been cited in these cases, should apply here. By invoking this adage, Breyer pointed to notions of equality in terms of the information presented. If a health clinic is required to provide information about adoption, shouldn’t it follow that the CPC be required to provide information about abortion? The tit-for-tat aspect of this would seem obvious, but Justice Thomas, in an effort to defend the majority decision, comes close to saying that the state can’t mandate any kind of warning in private businesses.

I understand that people have strong opinions about abortion. My interest here is not in debating which side is correct. I am, however, concerned that a SCOTUS decision that advocates hiding information from a woman seeking assistance with an unexpected pregnancy is further evidence that women’s access to language — what she may say and what she may hear — is devalued in our culture. And given that some of the most vulnerable women in our culture are those without healthcare, do not have a private doctor, are disproportionately women of color, poor, and immigrants, the weight of this decision will have an inordinate impact on those who face multiple forms of oppression. The decision declares that the information given to women is of less value than that which we hold to be the “truth.” Those kinds of arguments about women are possible in a culture in which women’s language is considered less important than the language of men.

Joan W. Scott argued over thirty years ago that when we talk about “gender,” what we are really talking about is power; the qualities that we ascribe to men are seen as the most powerful, positive qualities in all fields, while anything coded as “feminine” is inferior. She has refined and re-worked the theory, and many other theorists have added to it, but her argument continues to hold weight. Even in those fields where feminine qualities are seen as “superior,” namely, in the domestic sphere, the field itself is devalued because it is feminine.

Literature has emerged as a prime battleground in the debate over who is allowed to speak in our culture. When people do speak, the value given to their words reflects a valorization of its male qualities. If this doesn’t make sense to you, ask yourself this: What is women’s lit? What is men’s lit? As debates have reiterated many times, we don’t even conceive of something called “men’s lit.” “Men’s lit” is “literature.” “Women’s lit” is a derisive term used to denigrate writing by women as works of experience, not works of genius required to write “real” literature. Male writers such as Norman Mailer and Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul have openly declared that women who write are inferior to men. The extended history over whether Jonathan Franzen is a “genius” for his ability to write domestic fiction has been offered as evidence of critics’ double standards, because when women write domestic fiction, it is relegated to the “chick lit” (and therefore, not reviewed) section. These and other discussions are not new. What is new is that the literary industry — its publishers and journals — have begun to respond by encouraging the voices of those who were previously silenced.

Recently, however, writers such as Lionel Shriver have dismissed attempts by book publishers to expand the field of literature by searching out writers of color and those from the LGTBQ community by calling it a “quota system,” and implying that the writing produced by members of other communities is inferior to that produced by white writers. Or, as she wrote, “We can safely infer from that email that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling.”

Shriver insists that those who are, and have historically been, published earn that through merit. She assumes that valorizing other voices will lead to “bad writing,” perhaps even the end of literature. But the assumption that the white men who were previously published represented the “best” literary voices — which are based on subjective decisions of what constitutes “good writing”— does not seem to be forthcoming. On the other hand, attempts to provide numerical data on who gets published, as has been done in America by VIDA, consistently show that white men are still published in disproportion to their representation in the population. Information from Australia and the UK shows that the preponderance of people who work in publishing are white. The news that women were “better represented” in nineteenth-century literature than they are in modern publishing seemed to provide further evidence that the devaluation of women’s voices is real.

I could write thousands of words about the articles and studies that have documented that men are published more than women, white people are published more than people of color, and that LGTBQ people, people with disabilities, and even working-class people have low visibility in literature. This goes beyond who gets published. It’s also crucial to know who is reading what is out there.

What happens when women’s literature is seen as less important than that of men’s? The obvious response is that “serious” readers will be less likely to pick up a book written by a woman. After all, if books written by women are less likely to be reviewed, and people rely on reviews for information about books, how will a great book by a woman be brought to the serious male reader? When the New York Times does its “By the Book” feature each weekend, where it asks a writer of note to recommend books that have been important to them, why did Lauren Groff producing an all-woman list provoke Twitter outrage? Male writers often don’t mention women writers as influences, favorite writers, or someone they’re currently reading, and it passes without comment most of the time. As I wrote last year, even the most educated man who considers himself widely read might realize that he doesn’t read books written by women.

What happens to women when they are told over and over again that their words are less important than men’s? What does she start to believe about herself? How likely is she to keep trying to speak up, to be heard, if the default response is to ignore her? One of the most prominent voices on the loss of women’s voices is Rebecca Solnit. Solnit has addressed many topics adjacent to this silencing, but some of her most eloquent writing has been about women who are disbelieved when they report rape, sexual abuse, or domestic violence. Because men’s voices are prized over those of women, when the only two witnesses to an assault are one man and one woman, the man is assumed to be telling the truth, because the common belief is that “women lie.” If the only voice men ever hear is that of another man, why would they believe a woman over a man? And since men dominate our legal system, our literature, and our politics, how then is that situation going to change?

Roxane Gay has also written about how women’s silencing has a direct impact on the lack of empathy for women. As she said, “For whatever reason, fiction works in interesting ways to bring about empathy and empathy goes a long way in helping people to try and understand the lives of others, the issues people face.” If someone does not read fiction that exposes them to the experiences of people who are not like them, as when a man reads a book written by a woman, or a heterosexual white woman reads a book that details the experiences of a gay man of color, then how can that person develop empathy for the experiences of others? Literature affirms our experiences as human beings. If I’m a Latina girl and I want to grow up to be a writer, or if I’m gay teenager who wants to publish books, how can I know that is even possible for me, if I don’t see examples of it in the literature that is praised and recommended?

What not seeing those voices constantly says is, “You don’t matter.” It tells those of us who do not see ourselves reflected in those pages that our experiences are not human enough for others to relate to. And it tells those who read, but who don’t read about the experiences of others, that only certain voices constitute what we’re willing to consider fully human. Without representation in literature, I would argue, we are excluded from the human family. Our language and our ability to put our language out there is crucial in establishing our rights to be treated as full human beings.

The Supreme Court said on June 26th that the right of a private business to lie to a woman about pregnancy is a greater right than the ability of a woman to make her own decision about pregnancy. In the context of a society that doesn’t value the words that a woman says, consistent with that view is that she has less value when it comes to hearing the words that are spoken to her. If it’s okay to silence women, then it’s also okay to silence the speech delivered to women about their own lives.

Words matter. And so do we all.