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“Speech Will Be The Business Of Men”
Or, Why aren’t we listening to women?
Social injustices thrive on silence and denial. Change requires breaking silence, giving voice to the voiceless. This is a timeless principle. Take one OT example and one NT example:
“During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” (Exodus 2:23-25)
“Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.” (Acts 6:1)
Rectifying these injustices required at least three things:
A cry of injustice
A compassionate, listening ear
Action to right what was wrong
My focus in today’s newsletter is #2, specifically with respect to injustices against women.
I just finished Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice, by Dr. Judith Herman, and what sticks with me above all is the central premise of the book:
“This book is about envisioning a better way of justice for all. I propose that survivors of violence, who know in their bones the truths that many others would prefer not to know, can lead the way to a new understanding of justice. The first step is simply to ask survivors what would make things right—or as right as possible—for them. This sounds like such a reasonable thing to do, but in practice, it is hardly ever done. Listening, therefore, turns out to be a radical act.” (p. 4)
Dr. Herman’s 2005 article on which this book was based, Justice From the Victim’s Perspective, gives even more firsthand accounts of victims’ experiences in criminal and civil courts. What I have heard from church abuse survivors, most of whom are women, matches accounts from Herman’s informants (something I have written about here and here). While it feels obvious that these accounts are horrific and should move leaders and institutions to radical change, it is even more obvious that those in power don’t listen. My question today is, why not? Why do those responsible for enacting justice in the church have ears but do not hear?
One main answer, given that most church leaders are men and most victims are women, isn’t all that complicated:
When women speak, men don’t listen.
I’m guessing many female readers said a silent “mmhm” to that statement. Male readers might feel more ambivalent. I, for one, like to think I do a fair to decent, albeit imperfect, job of listening to my wife.
But I invite us all, men especially, to let go of defensive postures for just a few minutes and consider the broader culture of masculinity in which we swim. I will do this with a few examples taken from Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard.
Women & Power is a short book, 90 pages or so, adapted from two lectures, “The Public Voice of Women” and “Women in Power” delivered in 2014 and 2017, respectively. It can be read in one or two sittings and I recommend it to you. Her aim was to explain
“just how deeply embedded in Western culture are the mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously, and that sever them (sometimes quite literally, as we shall see) from the centres of power. This is one place where the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans can help to throw light on our own. When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.” (p. xi)
She starts with a scene from Homer’s Odyssey which paints a characteristic picture of man-centric culture:
“But the Odyssey is just as much the story of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope. It is the story of his growing up and how over the course of the poem he matures from boy to man. That process starts in the first book of the poem when Penelope comes down from her private quarters into the great hall of the palace, to find a bard performing to throngs of her suitors; he is singing about the difficulties the Greek heroes are having in reaching home. She isn't amused, and in front of everyone she asks him to choose another, happier number. At which point young Telemachus intervenes: 'Mother' he says, '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.’ And off she goes, back upstairs.” (p. 4)
Telemachus makes a much broader claim than Eomer’s line from LoTR that “war is the province of men.” No, speech itself is the business of men, not women. This belief was so deeply ingrained in the ancient world of Greece and Rome that “a low-pitched voice indicated manly courage, a high-pitched voice female cowardice” (p. 19). Indeed,
“Other classical writers insisted that the tone and timbre of women's speech always threatened to subvert not just the voice of the male orator but also the social and political stability, the health, of the whole state.” (p. 19)
With this core belief, it is no surprise that the only way for women to be heard by men was to sound like men. And this continues to our day. Just listen next time you watch a college basketball game and they cut to the one minute interview with the coach at half-time, always conducted by a female sportscaster. I hope this isn’t offensive, but I’m fairly certain these women don’t naturally have such deep voices. Perhaps some do, but a more likely explanation is that men won’t listen to women talk about sports unless they talk like men. This indeed is what Margaret Thatcher did: “she took voice training to specifically lower her voice, to add the tone of authority that her advisers thought her pitch lacked” (Beard, p. 39).
Here we are again: when women talk, men don’t listen. Unless, of course, they sound like men.
Such is the patriarchal air that all humans breathe. As Beard explains, “These attitudes, assumptions and prejudices are hard-wired into us: not into our brains…but into our culture, our language and millennia of our history” (p. 33).
Going back to where this began, the point was to answer the question of why so many male church leaders don’t listen to the real problems in enacting justice for female victims. Given my focus, this is more diagnosis than treatment. And I admit it’s a bit of a fly-over. The point is, we will only make progress in listening to victims to the degree that we push back against male supremacy, even and especially if we don’t think that’s a thing.
I might get into some suggested solutions in light of Herman’s works next time. But for now, I want to drive home this diagnosis with a true story. Anecdotal, to be sure, but it represents all too well the problem of men not listening to women. I’m guessing each woman reading this, and some men too, could add their own personal examples of women being ignored simply because of their gender.
I once sat in a room full of pastors and elders who met to hear from a female sexual assault survivor. Before sharing about the assault itself, she shared how utterly hurt she was by her shepherd’s neglect and failure to care for her. She voiced her complaint about their neglect for a good 10 minutes. I was sitting next to the pastor, and could feel him stiffen in anger as her complaint continued. I then watched and listened in horror as the first words out of the pastor’s mouth in response to this complaint were, “There are a few things we need to correct here.”
I was dumbstruck. Speechless. How was that the first thing he said?
He wasn’t listening. He utterly failed to hear the complaint, the cry of injustice, the groaning of pain. All he heard was a female voice, and because of that, easily brushed off as full of inaccuracies.
I guarantee he would have responded differently if that complaint had come from another man.
Lord have mercy.
Quote from Judith Herman
“[Listening to victims in order to envision a better way of justice] sounds like such a reasonable thing to do, but in practice, it is hardly ever done. Listening, therefore, turns out to be a radical act.”
Justice From the Victim’s Perspective, by Judith Herman.
Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice, by Judith Herman.
Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard.
Questions for Reflection
What do you think it will take to get more men, especially men in positions of church authority, to listen to the plight of women (and children) the way that the church of Acts listened to the plight of the Greek-speaking widows? (thanks tofor pointing out this aspect of Acts 6).
Do you think it was the widows themselves that spoke up, or perhaps men spoke on their behalf? The Greek word for Hellenists is masculine. Does that imply that the apostles listened to the complaint because it came from the men? Does that imply anything for us today?