This month our Rising Voices Fellows respond to statements by Jewish feminist icons. Be sure to check theJWA blog each Tuesday for a new post from our fellows—and check out the great educational resources provided by our partner organization, Prozdor.
Bella Abzug held office in the House of Representatives some forty years ago, and since then, what she said has been proven: those days are over. Women aren’t being trained to speak softly anymore, at least not uniformly. Outspoken women are allowed to put themselves out there.
Don’t believe me? I can offer piles of evidence that, if women are still trained to be soft-spoken, it’s not being done well. I see activists, congresswomen, a highly effective first lady, and girls my age who are doing as much as they possibly can with whatever reach they have. It’s inspirational, to say the least, and the best part about it is that it’s not at all strange in our modern society. These girls are confident and outspoken, and by most people, that’s seen thoroughly as a positive.
That being said, there are still people out there who aren’t so happy about this. You might call them misogynists, chauvinists, or just plain bigots, but by any name, they create a serious modern problem: they can’t shut women up, but they can certainly ignore anything they have to say.
Admittedly, I am saying this based mostly on observation. If my opinions went unheard, it would be sad but not necessarily societal. It wouldn’t matter whether or not anyone was training me to speak softly, because that’s what I would be doing anyway. I am an introvert if there ever was one, the kind who will remain shy and quiet even in an environment where being outspoken is actively encouraged. In my life, many more people have asked me to talk more than to talk less. You can see why the concept of being “trained” to be quiet is rather foreign to me.
As a quiet and anxious person, I’ve found quieter ways of expressing my feminism. I prefer advocating for positive body image and self-esteem: smaller, more personal things that I can chat about one-on-one with others. Anytime I see a girl doubting herself, I make sure to tell her that she is beautiful. I once even told a stick figure drawing on the class whiteboard that she was beautiful so that the other girls in my class would hear and take it to heart (she had been drawn to represent the backwards concept of a “fashion victim”). I may be speaking softly when I do this, but it’s what I’m comfortable doing. Perhaps I am not “Battling Bella” Abzug’s ideal, but as long as the extroverted women are allowed to fight and shout, I’m content focusing on the part of her quote about not being trained to carry a lipstick.
But when the misogynists, chauvinists, and bigots start talking back to the outspoken feminists, even the quiet ones like me need to speak up.
The most frustrating political dialogues to hear are the ones involving abortion and contraceptives. The very basis of many pro-life arguments is the dismissal of a woman’s thoughts and feelings, so it can feel like debating abortion rights is inherently futile. I remember the anger that I and many others felt over the Sandra Fluke controversy from a few years back. Fluke went before the House to advocate mandatory insurance for contraceptives, and ultraconservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh responded by making inappropriate assumptions about Fluke’s own sex life, writing her off as a “slut.”
Limbaugh may be part of a minority, but it’s a loud enough minority that it was able to mute the voice of a strong woman like Sandra Fluke. Abortion and contraception rights are issues that are difficult to advocate for. Therefore, in order to make our opinion on the matter heard, the entire feminist community must speak up.
Abortion is one of the few issues for which I have found myself willing to break out of my shell. Two years ago, I attended the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar in Washington, DC, where I learned more about several major social issues in the United States and about the lobbying process. At the end of the program, I had to write a speech and present it to my congressman’s office on Capitol Hill. Over the course of the weekend, I realized that the life of a lobbyist was much too far out of my comfort zone to be the right one for me. But at the same time, I recognized the unfairness present in the battle for abortion rights, and, knowing I might never give myself another opportunity to do so, I used my speech on Capitol Hill to speak up for those rights.
There are multiple paths to feminism; not every woman has to be “Battling Bella” to be strong, and I am extremely grateful for that. But sometimes, the voices of the extroverts are not loud enough. Those are the times that the soft-spoken ones have to push themselves and train themselves not to speak softly.