“Excuse me but can I be you for a while
My dog won’t bite if you sit real still
I got the anti-Christ in the kitchen yellin’ at me again
Yeah I can hear that
Been saved again by the garbage truck
I got something to say you know
But nothing comes
Yes I know what you think of me
You never shut-up
Yeah I can hear that”
“Sometimes I hear my voice/And it’s been here/Silent all these years” – Tori Amos “Silent All These Years”
From the time I was little, I knew I needed to keep my mouth shut most of the time if I wanted to stay in the room. One of my adopted father’s favorite sayings was “Children should be seen and not heard.” Sometimes this came with a bit of humor, other times with steel in his eyes.
I was raised in the church, evangelical version. There were many Sundays with fellow church-goers at the big dining room table. Because I was born with a vagina, my job was to help in the kitchen. Cook, serve, clean: rinse and repeat. I was taught how to be a proper lady, with a napkin in my lap, knees together, using the right cutlery for the right situation. Smile. SMILE. Asking who wanted more, could I get it for you, pass it to you, find it for you, help you with it, would you like some ice cream with your pie and can I top up your coffee? Being a woman was forever being a servant.
Sometimes if I finished well and quickly, I could sit with the men at the table as they discussed important matters. The state of the world, the sermon, local politics. No one in the kitchen was talking about these things. There it was all canning and gardening and can I have the recipe for that amazing cake you made. I wanted to be at the table, in the living room, talking about what the men talked about.
I remember the silences when I’d speak from my chair. Sometimes they were short, hiccups in the tides of conversation, other times they were longer. I’d get quizzical looks as if to say “Is she supposed to be here?”. If I were really lucky after I screwed up my courage enough to say what I thought, someone would hear me and respond with humore or even sincerely. Most of the time, I was laughed at, ignored, snapped at and ultimately summarily dismissed to “go play/go look after the kids/go read/go do your homework/go outside/go practice your music/GO”.
My adoptive father, a high school teacher, ex principal, thought I was worth talking to in private on many of the same matters discussed at the table. One on one, he encouraged my thirst for knowledge and as I grew, often spoke to me as a peer. As a teenager, I helped him mark his students’ papers. He had a library that stretched from wall to wall and up to the ceiling. I spent many an hour choosing and devouring reading material and we’d discuss it at length in the car, in his study, wherever and whenever we were alone.
I wonder if anyone can truly measure the impact of a father who treats their daughter differently in front of other people than in private. I wonder if it’s possible to understand how it affects a girl when her father repeatedly stands by and up for her brother, but never for her. How damaging is it, on the scale of childhood damage, to live parallel lives where you’re smart and capable when no one is around and completely erasable when they are. Invisible. Be seen, don’t be heard. Don’t open your mouth, you’ll have to watch your own back.
I can tell you the outcome, however, if you’re raised to be a people-pleaser who defers to men (aka a LADY) like I was.
You double, triple-think everything you want to say. Is it bullet-proof? It had better be or you’re going to be dismissed at best, ridiculed and attacked at worst.
You read a room. You read it well. You know the looks, the body language that means a man only wants to hear their own voice.
You think a man is worth more than you are. You are for taking care of babies, cooking, cleaning, holding the fort, looking good… and if you do all that, and do it well, you can have a career if you like. You may even get to keep it if it doesn’t conflict with a man’s priorities.
You internalize gender expectations in an extremely damaging way. Your brain is secondary to your sex, always.
You pass what you’ve learned, what you’ve experienced, on to your children. You do so in part because you want to protect them and in part because you don’t know better.
You take forever to realize that your voice doesn’t need permission, your space is your own. It’s equal to any man’s. You don’t have to pay the toll of beauty, ‘fuckability’, approachability, subjugation, familial connection.
You manage until you know better.
Then you fight.