Free Speech Rights are Women’s Rights by Margie Orford
01 Mar 2017
PEN SA President Margie Orford made the following speech on 30 January 2017 at the Free Speech Debate at St Antony’s College at Oxford University with PEN International President Jennifer Clement. The event was chaired by Timothy Garton Ash. A recording of the event can be listened to here.
At the Women’s March in Washington to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump, an elderly woman held up a sign saying ‘I can’t believe I am still protesting this shit.’
I had the same feeling. Why am I? Given the current politics the answer is obvious, but why is it so? And why does it matter?
It matters because patriarchal power and the attacks on free speech go hand in hand with the curtailment of women’s rights. They are in many ways dependent on each other to sustain the gendered forms of social and political power resurgent in the world today. The same forms of silencing, gendered power that have shaped most of history by denying full citizenship to women and silencing our voices.
Why is this happening and what are we to do about it?
It is not a coincidence that one of the first executive orders that Donald Trump’s signed stops international aid to any healthcare provider that might mention abortion. It is a move that impacts directly on the bodily integrity, the freedom of choice, the privacy and the authority of millions of women over their own bodies. It is also no coincidence that this was followed by a continuation of Trump’s attacks on the press (and the truth) and the gag orders on many government agencies that stopped staff from speaking to the press and communicating with the public on social media. This was followed by Steve Bannon, Trump’s advisor and enthusiastic proponent of the misogynist ‘alt-right’, calling the press ‘the opposition’.
In the same week that Trump signed laws banning funding to organizations that might just mention abortion, the Russian Duma passed a law that once again allows a man (as the head of the household) to beat his wife and his children if he so pleases. This in a country where writers are being imprisoned or murdered and which is dangerously hostile to free speech. We all heard when a Turkish deputy prime minister made a speech declaring that women should not laugh in public, in the midst of one of the most extreme campaigns to detain and silence writers. This has happened alongside a sustained attack on the rights and freedom of Turkish women that has resulted in a steadily increasing number of femicides (Bianet, an independent media organisation, monitors murders of women – no official stats are kept as “femicide” is not a category of murder used by the police here).
These men, who loom so large on the political stage, are misogynists who centralise power around themselves. Power that is premised on the most lethal binaries – of gender, of race, and of religion. The attacks on free speech and the attempt to restrict women and to assign them to the domestic sphere, with all the bodily policing, coercion and violence that goes with that, are two sides of a single page. You can see both of them but you cannot separate them.
The Greeks called this gendered sphere of the silent body the oikos. It was the opposite the equally gendered public sphere, the doxa. The doxa is the public realm, the realm of free speech, politics, decision and authority. Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the Vita Activa (Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958) outlines the original gendered asymmetry of social and economic power, as well as of the politics of speech (for men) and silence (for women and slaves) in Ancient Athens.
In the last two centuries women’s political and social struggles have ensured the expansion of civic rights – more in some parts of the world than in others. For example women have some form of voting rights in all states except the Vatican. Advances in cultural, social and economic rights have proved to be a great challenge. Oikos and doxa, the feminine and the masculine realms, continue to shape whose speech is viewed as legitimate public speech and whose is not. In many parts of the world transgression of these seemingly immutable codes severely restricts even the possibility of women having a public voice, of being able to read and to write. All over the world transgression of either the overt or the tacit prohibition on women’s free speech rights can sometimes be lethal. The threat of violence – in public, in the home – has a dangerously chilling effect.
The particular remit PEN International and the global network of centres that make up its membership, is literature. But literature, like all human activity, is dependent on the often invisible tectonics of history, social relations, politics and the distribution of wealth and power. Currently the terrain of public speech is being aggressively refigured as a masculine domain. It is a very specific type of masculinity, one that is aggressive and lethally dangerous to individuals and to a notion of democracy based on human rights.
Before we examine the famous free speech rights of Ancient Athens – that proto-democracy that shapes both our imaginations and our institutions – let us turn to literature. To Homer. To The Odyssey, one of the founding texts of world literature. Consider Mary Beard’s focus on one particular scene. Penelope, the weaving wife of Odysseus, comes down from her quarters to public part of her own home to address her adolescent son and the returning warriors. Telemachus is both threatened and threatening. He reprimands his mother and tells her that because she is a woman she has no right to speak. That she has no right to what he calls muthos, the ancient Greek word that meant ‘public speech’. He orders her to return to the woman’s quarters and she obeys. That symbolic and political act, played out in the intimate realm, displays the primary political-power relationship between men and women, between public speech and public silence. The gendered power at the heart of this scene is one that many women have experienced and that all of us can imagine. Women throughout history have done that; many have paid the ultimate price.
Imagine, if you will, that Penelope had refused, that she stood her ground and, by continuing to speak, challenged her son’s power by insisting on a woman’s right to muthos. Put yourself in Penelope’s place. She is in a room filled with armed men. In front of her is a son whose very authority, whose ‘honour’ has, like so many men before and after him, depended on his ability to silence a woman. To expel her from the public sphere, to defend – with violence if necessary – the doxa as a domain for men only. It was – it is – a dangerous moment.
This claim of women to muthos – to free, public speech – has been fiercely contested but it has been dangerous to women. There is a great deal at stake. The threat is veiled sometimes in places in the world where it seems fairer and safer, but one needs only think of Malala Yousafzai, shot in the head because she insisted on her right to read. Think of Jo Cox, the MP murdered for speaking out during the Brexit campaign, a campaign that enabled an open display racism and its conjoined twin, misogyny.
So with Penelope and her sisters across history in mind, let’s assess the nature of public speech so celebrated in Ancient Athens, discussed at length by Timothy Garton Ash in Free Speech (Garton Ash, Timothy: Free Speech, Atlantic Books 2016), a book that reflects the careful and influential work of the Free Speech Debate at Oxford. The right to free speech in Athens has shaped our concepts of democracy and the exchange of ideas and counsels that is its lifeblood. That domain, however, that doxa, was fiercely defended from interlopers and it was exclusively male. The historical aspersions cast on Xanthippe, the wife of Socrates, are worth considering. She is remembered because she refused to remain silent. We don’t know what she said, but that she spoke and challenged those around her has never been forgotten. Indeed, her name is a synonym for a ‘shrew’ or a ‘scold’, the more subtle but no less familiar way in which women’s voices – and particularly the content of what they are saying – is diminished by insult. The last recorded use in England of the scold’s bridle – a torture instrument complete with a studded metal rod that would pierce the tongue of a woman forced to wear one – was in 1856.
It is, therefore, worth revisiting how we remember Ancient Athens as the originating myth of the birth of free speech. It was not an innocent error that when the guest list of free speakers was drawn up women and slaves were excluded. This exclusion was the foundational premise about who got to speak freely. It was free men and not women and both law and custom enforced this. This fact should be neither buried nor forgotten.
Garton Ash quotes both Bacon’s observation that knowledge is power and Foucault’s assertion that ‘power determines what counts as knowledge.’ Foucault’s insights into how power shapes what counts as knowledge – and therefore power – and what does not, is crucial for looking at and understanding why women’s voices, their speech and their writings, have largely failed to get historical traction and the status of the public voice of authority. There are legal systems in the world where a woman’s voice counts literally half of that of a man. A half-truth. Which is in most people’s book a falsehood.
It should be kept in mind that power was attributed to certain privileged male voices – men who were not property themselves – and the subsequent struggles in the United States for black men’s voices to have the same rights as white men’s has been fundamental to the great struggles of the last few centuries. This has paralleled the struggles of colonised people to throw off the political and economic shackles of Europe’s five-hundred-year colonial project. It is not a struggle that has ended and intersections of identity around race, gender, sexual orientation, class and geographical location are important, complex and shifting. Here my focus is on women and their voices because in every society, in every culture, at every stage of history, women have been both defined by and silenced by law or by custom because they are women. The detail of how that silencing happens might vary but the principle of it remains the same, notwithstanding the political gains made by women (to vote, to be educated, to be public figures) in some places in the last century or so. So, for now, bearing in mind the trouble that is gender, to borrow from Judith Butler (Judith Butler: Gender Trouble), let me examine whether Free Speech Rights are Women’s Rights, the assertion that gave this debate its title.
Hillary Clinton made a similar assertion at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 when she said that Women’s Rights are Human Rights. The continuing discrimination against women shows that this is clearly not the case, despite some hard-won legal and social gains in certain parts of the world. In fact there is so much concern about the erosion of the limited gains made by women that a fifth conference on women has been delayed so that things are not made worse. That is a terrible indictment of the last twenty years.
So let us assess what the problem is with the assertion that women’s rights are human rights. Is it the women, is it the rights or is it being human? We all know what the rights are. They are listed for anyone to read in the 1948 International Declaration of Human Rights. But there is a lacuna, a troubling pause for thought between the concepts of ‘women’ and ‘human’, between ‘free speech’ and ‘women’. We must name if we are to do anything about it. So, are women human? (This was the uncomfortable title of a book by the scholar, Catherine MacKinnon: Are Women Human 2005. MacKinnon has been central to debates about women and free speech, notably and contentiously for her arguments that pornography should not be protected as free speech because it is an act of violence against women. This debate is outlined in Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech). This is a good question and it is one that needs to be answered because it is human beings only who are considered worthy of the full set of human rights unqualified by the ifs and buts of law, culture, religion and tradition.
So, are we human? If we take speech, as most people do, as the defining attribute that sets Homo Sapiens apart from other animals then yes, women have the same physiological capacity to speak as men do. But speech is so much more than a biological ability to make sound. Speech (and writing) is fundamentally a social and political act. It is the right to speak and to be heard, not the ability to make sounds, which makes that contracts and us fully human us socially and disburses power.
So let us examine the more recent origins that shape this present discussion of the contested notions of what rights are, what men are, what women are, what free speech is and, therefore, what humanity might be. These ideas emerged in and through the Enlightenment and were brought to bloody birth during the tumult of the French Revolution; the French National Constituent Assembly passed the founding document, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, in August 1789. It should be noted that the right to free speech was fundamental to this declaration. It should also be noted that, just as in Ancient Athens, ‘Man’ meant men and men only.
This was contested immediately by the abolitionist, philosopher and writer, Olympe de Gouges. In 1791 she published The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. ‘Woman has the right to mount the scaffold,’ she wrote, ‘she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.’ For De Gouges, ‘the most important expression of liberty was the right to free speech,’ (Joan Woolfrey: Olympe de Gouges) but freedom of public and political speech was, as it was in Athens, the fiercely protected domain of men. ‘In fact,’ writes Joan Woolfrey, ‘female political participation of all kinds was formally banned by the French National Assembly in 1793, after one of several uprisings led by women.’ (ibid). Two years later De Gouges did indeed mount the scaffold. She was one of three women to be executed during the Reign of Terror, and the only woman to be executed for sedition, accusations that stemmed for the main part on her insistence on women’s rights, particularly the right to free speech.
Olympe de Gouges’ execution for her insistence on women’s right to free speech, her staunch abolitionist views and her rejection of political exclusion whether it be based on sex or skin colour, serves not only as a heroic story of resistance. Her challenge to The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen makes apparent that, ‘The Enlightenment presumption of the “natural rights” of the citizen (as in “inalienable rights” in the U.S. Declaration of Independence) [was] in direct contradiction to the equally firmly-held belief in natural sexual differences—both of which [were] so-called “founding principles of nature.’ (ibid). These patriarchal notions of ‘sexual difference’ are, therefore, the trouble at the heart of notions of universal human rights. This is why there is that lacuna between ‘human rights’ and ‘women’s rights’, between ‘free speech’ and ‘women’s speech’. And the first woman to refuse the categorization of women as being, like animals and things, outside of the protection of rights and citizenship had her head cut off for speaking out.
Mary Wollstonecraft brought the liberating potential of rights for men to the attention of English speaking world in her 1790 publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Man. The fiction that these rights might be extended to women, particularly the right to a sound education that would make them more than helpless ornaments in the home, came in the form of her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).
Susan B. Anthony, the American civil rights campaigner, wrote in 1900 that ‘No advanced step taken by women has been so bitterly contested as that of speaking in public. For nothing which they have attempted, not even to secure the suffrage, have they been so abused, condemned and antagonised.’ (Quoted by Rebecca Solnit in her essay on Trump’s fear of women) Why that was so then and why that continues to be the case – especially on that new and dominant doxa, the Internet – is a matter for serious thought and political engagement.
The ‘invisibility’ of this gendered power at the heart of free speech – something so many of us cherish – is dangerous. It is worth bearing in mind that the word gender is often used wrongly as a synonym for women. Women are conspicuous in public very often because the presumption – conscious or unconscious – is that they should not be there. Or it is unusual that they are there and speaking. It is rarely if ever commented on or analysed why it is that men are speaking. That is not seen to be a problem of gender, but it is.
In preparation for this evening I looked in the index of Garton Ash’s book Free Speech for the references to gender. There isn’t one. So I looked up women. There I found references to pornography and abortion, a diminishment of women’s civic and public claim back to the realm of the body. To affairs of the oikos. This is a writing of women as embodiment rather with the more abstract and cerebral claims to citizenship and authority. Granted much excellent campaigning work has been done around the rights to bodily integrity but still, I wondered why this would be so. The body is political – that we know from the insistence of feminism and Black Consciousness and LBGTI activists that the personal is political. Which body one is born into, which body one becomes, is a political and social process. Even in – or perhaps particularly in – the age of the Internet. So why is it that the privileged but equally physical body of the occupant of the seat of free speech and citizenship – the man who resides in human – has been invisible? Perhaps simply because he has been there for so long that – like the furniture, like the walls – we – or more particularly the archetypal he – no longer sees himself. He is simply there while these interlopers, these uninvited but insistent Others, are very visible. They upset the décor. They make the space different and new. They open windows no one knew were there.
The discomfort, the unease and all too often the hostility and fear remain for many women, for the others who are insufficiently like the occupants of the public place of authority and power. Those who think that power is rightfully theirs because their bodies are male. The aggressive performance of masculinity that we see with Trump, Putin and Erdoğan and the increasing number of politicians of their ilk, illustrate this clearly.
So what are we to do? The principles set out by the Free Speech Debate are an excellent and thoughtful frame and have facilitated a great deal of complex and nuanced debate. There are, however, a couple of them that I would like to refract through the literary lens of gender. The first is the concept of the frontier. That free speech knows no frontiers. This is the wonderful language of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it is in the PEN Charter – that literature should know no frontiers. Ours is an organization – a collective of writers – that is imbued with the thinking and the language of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and particularly of Article 19, which guarantees free expression. Article three of the PEN Charter calls specifically dispelling of class, race or national hatreds. This is a tacit acknowledgement that such hatreds exist and that they need to be named and actively resisted and defused. The same applies to with gender. The expansion of human rights to women has not happened automatically. It has increasingly had to be specified and literature and writing is, unfortunately, no exception. The rights of women to expression, to bodily integrity, to information, to free movement, to read, to write are frequently denied because they are women.
These asymmetries of power – to put it delicately – are made in and through language and it is that language and its power that needs attention and action. So let us consider this notion of frontiers a little more closely in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the PEN Charter and in Timothy Garton Ash’s book that reflects the work of the Free Speech Debate in the discussion on the Internet. These frontiers are thought of as borders – between countries and nations. It is worth considering that for many women in the world – and for almost all women until relatively recently – the first and the last and perhaps the most powerful frontier was the front door of the house she lived in; until very recently, either her father’s or her husband’s house. This is an internal border whose guards and injunctions need to be considered as a wall that is not always physical. It is one that needs to be dismantled. Women, in order to have free speech, the right to read, the right to write, need to have the right to roam both physically and intellectually. There are few if any social systems that do not look with hostility at a woman who walks by herself. These are intimate prisons that work to great effect.
Let’s consider Penelope again. She was distressingly visible in the great hall of her own home. The crowds of armed men – including her hostile son – were not. The threat she faced was real and immanent. She knew enough from seeing what had happened to other women in her society who had stepped out of line to know that she had no choice but to return to her quarters. Violence is a hard thing to argue with. Another key principle in the Free Speech Debate is the refusal of violence. There are a great many people who live under the very real threat of violence – by the states they live in, by terrorists who use what Timothy Garton Ash has called the assassin’s veto. The very real threat of violence that many women face is usually perpetrated by someone that they know. This is censorship at its most intimate and most dangerous and most invisible because it has been ascribed to the domestic sphere. So violence against women and the threat of it is not read politically. It is read domestically. It happens in the oikos and is therefore exempt. Women’s accounts of it are not read in the same way as a war reporter’s stories are. It is not knowledge that becomes power. This is something that we must consider if we are truly to make free speech rights women’s rights. How to do this I am not sure but we won’t find out unless we name the problem and ask the questions as to its causes. It is a political affair not a domestic one, even though these crimes might take place in the most private of settings. It is worth noting too that since Erdoğan’s ascent to power, his war of attrition on the rights of women in Turkey has escalated, as it has against anyone else who speaks out, but the number of killings of women – of femicides has risen during that time. His words – and his silencing of women, his refusal to let them laugh – legitimizes a kind of male violence against which the feminist movement had made some gains. A frightened woman might keep silent, but a dead woman cannot write except with the mute language of the wounds on her body.
The third principle that I wish to examine briefly is the notion of robust civility. The gendered abuse of women in the public sphere of the internet is something that needs to be addressed for what it is – the equivalent of Penelope facing the men in her own house. It is difficult to know exactly what to do but this is something we need to work on together if we are to make free speech rights women’s rights.
So, women’s bodies have disrupted the Athenian doxa, as they disrupted the masculinist conceptualization of the Rights of Man. But they are not the only disruptive bodies. The struggle for women’s free speech rights is not identical to LGBTQI struggles across the world. Persecution, silencing and discrimination are targeted differently. The discriminatory laws and customs brought to bear on women and those whose identities challenge heteronormativity are not always identical. There are areas of intimate overlap and these are movements are allied in the challenge to the narrower definitions of the free-speaking political subject. As we see the resurgence of strongman politics, of fascism and the rise of the right, all political ways of thinking that seek to silence dissent and which persecute difference, we would be wise to take counsel from those who know the nature of power the best – those who have experienced its brute force.
Free Speech has usually been articulated in terms of law. As the relation between state and citizen – the state cedes the right for citizens to speak freely – democracy. Or the state removes that right and censors what citizens say – tyranny. This affects women and men in the same way – we only need to think of the murder of Anna Poliskaya and the detention of women writers in Turkey – but this works only up to a point. If free speech rights are to be women’s rights, indeed if human rights are to be women’s rights, then the challenges are deeper, more systemic and they require the ceding of both talking time and power. This is vital. As I see it, without women’s rights there are no free speech rights. In the dangerously macho world we currently inhabit it is crucial that we redefine both masculinity and free speech for all. History teaches us that freedom, equality and respect are brought about through collective action and solidarity. An understanding that the loss or absence of rights for one person is a loss for all of humanity.
How to do this? With Olympe de Gouges in mind, let’s return once more to that scene of Homer’s and that confrontation between Penelope and Telemachus. Let’s imagine that when he ordered her back to her quarters, when he denied her the right to muthos – public speech – that she refused to go. Let’s imagine that she insisted on speaking and that when she spoke that she was not alone. Let’s imagine that the wiser, more confident men intervened and instructed Telemachus thus: ‘You,’ they said, ‘be silent. Listen to the words of this woman. This space, this doxa is one that should be shared. She is wise and will have good counsel for she has experienced the pointless slaughter of the Trojan wars too. Let us listen to her and see if there is another way.’
Imagine how differently the course of both history and literature might have been. This is the moment at which we must re-imagine, re-write, rethink because we know what the consequences will be if we don’t.
(Image by Giorgia Fanelli)