Are we silence-proof? A response to Silence in the Archives by Dr Katie Collins

Dr Katie Collins was a delegate attending Silence in the Archives on 7th November. She has kindly given us permission to reproduce her response to the day. Katie is on twitter @aliceinacademia.

Are we silence proof?

Cause sometimes

I said sometimes

I hear my voice

And it’s been here

Silent All These Years

Tori Amos

The interior of Wolfson College is a concoction of natural materials: vivid green grass visible through the windows, slate and stone, wood old and new (and, apparently, the best toilets in the university). I had come to Oxford for Silence in the Archives, to learn about censorship and suppression in women’s life writing in the long nineteenth century. A strange choice of conference perhaps, for a social researcher more typically found in her native habitat of critical ethnography, working with marginalised and excluded groups of people. So, why was I there?

I left home in the sort of dark early morning silence where headlights make the world crinkle its eyes at the intruding brightness. By the time I reached the Cotswolds the streetlights were off but the wind wasn’t, trees stirring the sky with the tips of their branches, whipping up an orange snowstorm across the fields. But my journey towards the study of silence began many months before that blustery morning in early November. In my doctoral thesis, I had written about the ways in which participatory research methods, conceived by activists and radicals as a political methodology of empowerment, are being adopted (co-opted, really) by local government and health services to change people’s behaviour. The context was two deprived neighbourhoods, the behaviour risky drinking. I wrote about the loneliness of young mothers gulping wine at lunchtime, about the need to hide the bruises of alcohol-fuelled domestic violence, and women’s determination to keep families together under a protective blanket of silence.

But there’s something missing in the books and articles I’ve read about the origins of participatory methods of enquiry. These methods are founded in conscientização, or critical consciousness: the process whereby people wake up to the political, socioeconomic and cultural contradictions that work together, externally and internally, to oppress them (Ledwith, 2011). It involves techniques like culture circles: discussion groups based on participants’ lived experiences. Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the women’s liberation movement will be hearing some bells ringing right about now, and engraved on those bells will be the words ‘consciousness raising’. And yet, Freire, Horton, Gramsci, Nyerere, Ghandi – radical males – are given the credit for the innovations that led to participatory enquiry. bell hooks is thrown some crumbs in these accounts, for her innovations in feminist pedagogy.

That’s a very specific example of a very specific silence, but what is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure is that, much as Elaine Bailey argued so eloquently of the poet Matilda Betham, the radical women in 1970s New York knew that this silencing was happening. Like Betham, ruefully they watched the spaces appear as they were rubbed away from their work:

“Shulamith Firestone, in the women’s liberation movement’s first theoretical journal Notes From The First Year, described and wrote about the process of the feminists in general and the radicals in particular being written out of the history of the last century and we ourselves almost immediately began to experience this invisibility happening to us even as we were there. The more successful the radical, feminist women became, the more widespread our slogans and ideas, the more invisible we got – even as what we produced was becoming visible” (Sarachild, 1976, p. 13).

It seems women may face a stark choice: on the one hand speak and write radical words and risk suppression, erasure, absence. Face punishment like Betham, who was once incarcerated for insanity; or Germaine Greer who has met accusations of bigotry and rhetorical violence recently, and been dismissed as old, irrelevant, rigid and authoritarian in editorial and on social media. On the other hand, we can censor and sanitise our radicalism, and be remembered through a rosy lens of male approval. As Bailey pointed out, her calm, musical voice in stark counterpoint to the humming, floodlit intensity of the lightbulb moment this represented for me: men’s silence ensures their continued grasp on power. But women’s silence is just… silence.

Feeling silenced as an individual and a scholar can be hard to talk about (take a moment to appreciate the irony). It feels like paranoia verging on narcissism. I’m not silenced; I just don’t say anything worth listening to, don’t write anything worth noticing. But the more I explore this topic of women’s erasure across disciplines, the more silence I find. In 200 years, when another group of scholars gather in Wolfson College on a rainy autumn day, I can’t help but wonder about our contemporaries: active, curious, creative, radical female scholars, writers, performers, composers, and poets, prolific as the falling leaves… today. How many of us will be, as Karen Hunt said in her keynote, “hidden beneath the noise”.

Are we silence proof?

Harvey, J. (1999). Civilized oppression. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Ledwith, M. (2011). Community development: A critical approach. Bristol: Policy Press.

Sarachild, K. (1976) “The Power of History” in Redstockings of the Women’s Liberation Movement (ed) Feminist Revolution. New York: Random House.

Thank you to Bethany Sagar-Fenton and Millie Slavidou, who offered constructive suggestions on the first draft and whose contribution should not be silent.

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3 thoughts on “Are we silence-proof? A response to Silence in the Archives by Dr Katie Collins

  1. Thank you, OCLW, for making it possible for researchers worldwide to tap into some of the great insights and work on silence and women in the 19thc at the Oxford seminar. The posts overcome one side of a silence for those of us who couldn’t get there, but would have loved to.

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