Whispering Women

I’m only a hundred pages into Radical Spirits, but it’s printed on such thick paper that I appear to be about halfway through. It’s a very short book on thick stock. Oh the 90s, when paper was thick.

Anyway, I’m just reading the part where the women’s rights people who aren’t Spiritualists are expressing great envy of the Spiritualists. Apparently our feminist forebears used to spend a lot of time, rightly, complaining about how softly other activists spoke. It’s interesting. White women of the middle and upper classes were literally not supposed to speak in public. Even some women’s rights advocates would write their speeches and have their brothers read them, so deep was this internalized belief that it wasn’t right for women to speak in public.

And even when some did become brave enough to speak, they often just spoke their speeches very softly, even if it meant no one could hear them. And then the women would fight because some wanted the speakers to speak up and others were like “Um, hell no, we’re not going to stand around outside and bellow.” As if giving a speech no one could hear somehow counted.

And even Elizabeth Cady Stanton is writing letters about how hard it is for her to speak in public and how she clings to the few speeches she has written (this is early on, obviously) and how she envies the Spiritualist women, who do talk loudly and with authority, even if they are in trances to do so.

I have been thinking a lot about whether Spiritualism is fake, whether it’s just wishful thinking forcefully asserted. I think you know, if you’ve read me long enough, that this is the deepest question I have about my own beliefs, even as I find incredible value in them. So, I’m not asking whether it’s fake as a way to discount it. I’m honestly trying to understand for myself.

But I have to tell you, reading about these women, so desperate for their lives to improve and how they still, even as they needed freedom, couldn’t speak in public, just couldn’t get over that ingrained hurdle, it’s hard not to believe that, fake or not, it was powerful spiritual stuff that let women speak in a voice that could be heard.

3 thoughts on “Whispering Women

  1. Maybe speaking from a trance was one way women could speak, and that’s why it became popular. Kind of like why lots of young women refuse to use birth control because they’re not supposed to be thinking about having sex…it just overtakes them. Women can’t speak in public or assert an opinion of their own (or even have them, legitimately), but if they’re taken over by the spirits, it isn’t really them. Kind of like the need to speak finding its own forms. I remember my Mormon grandmother saying, once, “Well, I know what *I* *think* about it, and no one can keep me from thinking for myself.” Too bad she wasn’t allowed to get prophetic dreams, because I’ll bet she’d have had some! Always a way for people to find divine sanction for what they want anyway: Joseph Smith and plural marriage; Muhammed’s revelations that calmed his household tensions.
    And gee, B, does it really matter if what you believe is *actually* true? It’s true enough in the way it feels and what it allows you, and it’s true in the same way stories are true. I wonder if you (and I and others) need it to be factually true because of personal reasons–because it helps us to assert something and assert ourselves against a powerful injunction and pressure not to.

  2. Ha, you have hit on something that I really, even now, struggle with–do I think I have a right to fully participate in my own mythic stuff? Or do I continually try to make it smaller and sillier so that it seems okay if I find it fascinating?

    And I don’t know, but I suspect I might want things to be true or small (either one) so that it’s okay if I do it.

    Letting go and giving over and saying “this part of my life is wild and unknown and doesn’t make sense, even on the face of it, and that’s what keeps me together” is really scary for me.

  3. Yes, I think that’s it. It’s not whether or not we have the right; it’s whether or not we think we have the right. And if diminishing it makes it ok for us to believe we have the right (or that it might be true), maybe that’s a step on the road to overcoming the the pressure against which we push. What I found is that I didn’t need victory against the forces pushing against me; I just refused any more to grant them the power to make me feel as if I needed a victory. I suspect some of this is age-related. As I’ve said about other feminist issues, once you have achieved institutional weight, their threats or potshots are like little annoying insects. You wave them away, shut the door on them, or swat them. May

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