Picture this. A young teenager in her front room. Her parents sat opposite her on the sofa. It’s 1 am. A long, rather touchy discussion has just concluded on all things feminism and equality. She addresses every progressive debate she could think of; abortion, lgbtqia+ rights, drag queens, racism in politics and education, ethnocentric culture, the gender pay gap, double standards of sexuality, and anything else she could pull out of her sociology textbook. The young girl, desperate to let her parents know that even one remotely sexist joke or conservative remark would result in a full-blown shunning, lectures her parents on the necessity to move with the times. Hesitant but nonetheless interested, they listen. They learn. They also probably stare with confusion at the small anarchist they had in the family. But then one of them utter a sentence that would quite literally change everything: “sometimes, lovely, you have to know when to bite your tongue. You never know, it might rub some people the wrong way.” And so a little raging feminist was born.
My parents meant well, probably expecting that one day I’d be in a shouting match with someone who dared to debate me. But without knowing it they quite literally told me that I should prioritise other people’s comfort before my own voice. 14 or 15-year-old-me realised for the first time that a girl speaking her mind was, apparently, viewed as a threat. I entered each social encounter after that moment, particularly when in spaces with older, more educated men or when in classroom debates, with that phrase stuck in the back of my mind. “Bite your tongue.”
Of course, looking back on it now, it isn’t shocking that I was essentially told to pipe down. Powerful female voices throughout history have been met with more shock and unease than welcomed or embraced. It’s a tale as old as time. But it really did change the way I thought about myself and the people around me. Was I a girl turned extremist? A radical? No. I simply spoke my mind on issues that bugged me without remorse. It’s funny really, that we’re raised in a society that champions freedom of thought and speech, yet the same society patronises young women for doing exactly that.
Suddenly I began to deconstruct every social encounter I found myself in. Was I going too far? Talking too much? Was I coming across too passionate? I had the mind of a race car going 100 miles per hour, but I spoke at the rate of a brisk walk. As I aged and became more passionate about social issues through my education, I began to ask why. I realised that I was quite literally regulating my opinions for the reaction of others. People around me knew that I was intelligent and strong-minded, but they didn’t know that half the time I was holding back so much of my real thoughts. Probably why I was the teacher’s pet; gold-star for being well-behaved and just the right amount of outspoken.
I can’t tell you how much I look forward to “rubbing people the wrong way” now as a 20-year old woman. If rubbing people the wrong way means keeping people informed, calling out bigotry when I see it, educating people on what is and isn’t offensive and staying true to my values, then it seems it’s become a personality trait. It’s interesting to see how people react to a woman’s intelligence. I’ve been told countless times that the reason I don’t have a boyfriend at the outrageous age of 20 is probably because my intelligence intimidates men. Funnily enough, I can’t quite imagine that conversation going the same way if I were a guy. And if that really is the reason, I can’t wait to stay happily single.
It’s safe to say that if I followed the advice I received as a young girl I wouldn’t be the woman I am today. But it is worrying to think how many other young girls have been told similar things. If every women had a penny for the amount of times they heard something along the lines of “calm down,” “don’t get rowdy,” or “someone’s on their time of the month” when speaking their mind, I’m confident that we’d have enough money to make up the gender pay gap ourselves. It’s time we stop associating female voices with ‘boldness’ or ‘outspokenness’- as if expressing an opinion is somehow shocking or abnormal just because it came from a female mouth.
Women’s tongues have been tied up for far too long. Let us speak. And to any woman who might fall upon this article, screw anyone who told you to hold yourself back. Your voice matters. Say it. Scream it.