Friday, November 30, 2012

Ears to Hear


A couple weeks ago the Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South, where I work, celebrated our 35th anniversary with an event at the King’s Daughters Inn in Durham, NC. Friends of RCWMS joined us for afternoon tea, dinner, and in some cases for an overnight stay at the inn. Basically it was a giant sleepover with a group of fabulous feminist women of all ages.

After an incredible supper, catered by Durham Catering Co., and even more incredible cakes from Yellowbird Baking, we all gathered in the parlour for some evening entertainment in the form of readings, songs, and a bedtime story.

Jeanette Stokes, the Executive Director of RCWMS, had asked me to read an essay as part of the informal program. I was happy to oblige, though a little nervous. At this stage in my writing career I haven’t done many public readings, but I knew that many of the women in the audience would be my friends and mentors, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to read to a welcoming audience.

As everyone settled into their seats, Jeanette staked out a space at the front of the room as a “stage,” and made some introductory remarks, and then I stood up to begin. At Jeanette’s request I first explained a little about my blog, which was helpful because it gave me a chance to find my voice before I began reading my essay. I was worried about my ability to project my voice all the way to the back of the room, so after my introduction I paused and asked, “Can everyone hear me okay in the back?”

Everyone nodded in approval, which was not what I expected. I went on to read a piece from here on the blog, which will also appear later this month in the RCWMS newsletter. Everyone seemed to enjoy it. What has stuck with me since then is the simple fact that everyone could hear me without me having to work too terribly hard at speaking loudly. I used my usual, reasonably practiced reading voice, enunciated and projected, and that was enough. This might not seem like that big of a deal to most people, but every time -- every time -- I speak in a room full of people, no matter what the context, a man somewhere in the room asks me to speak up.

Learning to speak in my normal voice in public has been a process, and when I was first getting used to public speaking -- reading, preaching, asking questions in class, whatever -- I had to work to use my regular voice, instead of speaking more quietly than normal due to nerves. So there is something to be said for practice. But after a certain point, not being heard is not my fault anymore. Reading to a room full of women and having everyone say, in effect, “Oh yes, of course we can hear you -- please, keep going, we want to listen!” clarified this for me more than hundreds of requests to speak up ever have.

Now, I realize sometimes people are just hard of hearing, and that is a different thing. I realize, also, that acoustics can be bad. And that I really do have a higher, quieter voice than a man, so it does not carry as well. But I am finally ready to say that none of that is an excuse for not listening to women.

I am not going to cultivate a “preaching voice” that sounds like a man. That is not my voice. If God wants to speak through me, then God will use the voice she gave me.

Listening is hard work. I know this because often when I hear other women speak I have to work harder to hear them, too. But if you believe women’s voices are valuable then it is more than worth that extra effort.

In the parlour at the King’s Daughters Inn I was heard not because I spoke more loudly than usual, or because the acoustics were exceptionally good. I was heard because the women around me have practiced listening to the voices of others for their whole lives.

If you cannot hear us, you must quiet yourself. If you cannot hear us, you must train your ears to attend to new sounds. If you cannot hear us, listen.