Listen up, men: A strong voice for women emerges, from the 1700s

A strong voice for women emerges, from the 1700s

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A new TV adaptation of the series of fantasy books by Diana Gabaldon, “Outlander,” tells the story of Claire Randall, a nurse who has recently finished serving in World War II and is whisked back in time while on a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands. There are a lot of fantastical and pleasurable things about the show, which gives Claire a sexy Scottish love interest and features lovely, green Scottish landscapes.

But one element of the “Outlander” fantasy struck me as particularly resonant for our times: Even though Claire (played by Caitriona Balfe) has landed in an era in which the role of women is very different — as are attitudes about everything from sexual violence to criminal punishment — when she talks, people listen to her. 

In one episode, Claire tartly questions the lord who holds her prisoner. “Is there ever a good reason for rape, Master MacKenzie?” she wants to know. “I beg your pardon,” the man tells her, chastened, “an unfortunate turn of phrase on my part.” In another, Claire protests to the wife of a local lawgiver when she learns that a boy who stole a loaf of bread may lose his hand, thereby winning him a lighter sentence. At a tense dinner with British officers, when Claire loses her temper and mounts a spirited defense of the Scottish people, the men are stunned into silence.

The right to speak your mind and the expectation that people will listen to, and even act on, what you say may not seem like a particularly exorbitant luxury. But many of the political struggles women face today involve our continuing struggle to be heard in a respectful and serious manner.

Women can be marginalized even in the very forums that rely on them to share their experiences.

Anna, a college student who was sexually assaulted during her freshman year at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, told The New York Times about the frustrations of testifying about her experience before the school’s disciplinary panel: “I felt like I was talking to someone who knew nothing of any sort of social interaction; what happens at parties; what happens in sex.”

Panelists interrupted her and each other, changing the subject before she could answer. They asked questions that were intrusive in ways that did not contribute to their adjudication of the evidence, which in some cases they mischaracterized.

Campus disciplinary procedures are meant to give students the opportunity to seek redress for the institution’s failure to keep them safe, ideally in circumstances that are less adversarial than judicial proceedings. Too often, experiences such as Anna’s make women wish they had not spoken at all.

Then there are the occasions when women speak out but are accused of doing so incorrectly. When Rachel Jeantel, the last person to speak to Florida teenager Trayvon Martin before he was shot to death by George Zimmerman, testified in the Zimmerman murder trial, she was excoriated for her self-presentation, her weight and her tone.

“Jeantel’s credibility was not the only thing being questioned,” wrote Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker. “Her intelligence was, too.”

Is it any surprise, then, that women such as Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, and reproductive rights advocate Sandra Fluke became political celebrities for their persistence in speaking their minds, even when facing tremendous obstacles?

In 2013, Ms. Davis filibustered legislation that proposed new restrictions on abortions. For 11 hours, her voice was the barrier holding back the bill, which ultimately passed. After Ms. Fluke testified in favor of the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that contraception be covered by insurance plans, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut” and a “prostitute” on air, unleashing a torrent of virulent attacks on her. Ms. Fluke was not deterred: She is currently running for the state Senate in California.

But moments like Ms. Davis’ filibuster or Ms. Fluke’s testimony are electrifying precisely because it is so rare for women to be in a position in which we are not simply a participant in debates but rather are able to end them by passing laws, giving orders or implementing company-wide strategies and directives. Just 20 of the 100 U.S. senators are women, and in the House, 79 of the 435 members are women. The country’s armed services did not have a woman as a four-star general until 2008, when the Army promoted Gen. Ann Dunwoody to that rank. Just 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

This is why it is such a pleasure to watch Claire Randall back-talk her way through 18th-century Scotland. Even traveling back in time, she has preserved a freedom that, for many women, seems awfully far in the future.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes The Washington Post’s Act Four blog at www.washingtonpost.com/​news/​act-four.



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