Pillars of Salt: Divorce and the Systematic Erasure of Women’s Voices

At the moment, I’m doing a lot of thinking about how medieval women’s emotions, thoughts and desires are often misunderstood, dismissed, or simply not recognised – because women expressed these thoughts and desires in ways that do not resemble those of men. Because they stand outside the masculine paradigm, they are effectively invisible. The situation is further complicated, because when we scholars search for examples of vivid, emotionally expressive, thoughtful, complex medieval women’s voices, we tend to fall back of characters like the voluble Wife of Bath or the anxious Criseyde – that is, characters whose voices are not in fact their own, but written by male authors.

All of this was on my mind as I read Tim Lott’s latest column in the Guardian, here. It’s a sobering piece, and in many ways, one that should make us feel sympathy. In it, Lott announces two deeply personal struggles: the first concerning his impending divorce, and the second his recent diagnosis of ADHD. I could only nod when Lott begun by saying that this was a difficult column to write. Neither divorce nor ADHD is an easy thing to contend with, and according to Lott, the ADHD itself played a significant role in the maital problems he chronicled so publicly in his column over the years – indeed, even the process of ‘oversharing’ in this column is, he acknowledges, likely a symptom of ADHD itself. Publishing the column, Lott writes, caused his wife ‘frustration I well understand, but can do little to alleviate – other than quit writing this.’

At this point, although I acknowledge the profound difficulties living with ADHD can bring to those with the condition, I couldn’t help seeing the parallels to wider debates. I couldn’t help seeing how this column replicated wider inequalities.

ADHD is one of those conditions that is under-diagnosed in girls and women. The standard reason given for this is precisely that which I encounter when looking at medieval women. Women present differently, voice things differently. They are socially coerced to keep silent. They are not given a platform. When Lott writes about his practice of discussing the tensions within his marriage using the privilege of his public platform in the Guardian, he claims that it is the ‘compulsion’ to overshare that has ‘left my wife feeling that she is without a voice’. One could applaud his honesty in acknowledging his wife’s feelings (difficult, that). But … it’s not really the ‘compulsion’ that operates to amplify one voice while silencing another. It’s the fact that Lott is writing a column for a national newspaper, and a column that gives validation to his views. We need, so the Guardian implicitly informs us, by publishing this material, to hear the views of a middle-aged man sniping at his wife. It’s important that we listen. In my mind, I run over the columns about daily life written by women for the Guardian – Michelle Hansen, Lucy Mangan – and I can’t think of any compare to this. Women are not regularly given space to air their marital grievances, and if they do, it must be a process carried out in comic, self-mocking mode, or an outburst primly labelled as shrewish, nagging, or shrill.

Women’s voices are still systematically ignored, marginalised, silenced – and yet, writes Lott, what could he do to alleviate his wife’s frustration ‘other than quit writing this’? The question is posed almost rhetorically: how can a man be expected to give up his voice, his public platform to speak?

In a week in which we read of a judge informing a woman that she was not permitted to be unhappy within her marriage, Lott’s column speaks more loudly (and with more privilege) than he knows. In the legal case in question, Judge Robin Tolson decided that the unhappiness, discontent and emotional bullying Tini Owens described was not grounds for divorce. After all, Owens’ husband felt he knew his wife’s emotions better than she did herself.

I can’t help feeling that there’s a double standard here. How will we ever learn to recognise the ways in which women express their thoughts, emotions and desires, if we constantly hear from men telling women what their emotions must be, how ‘well’ they ‘understand’ those unvoiced frustrations women must feel, how confidently they can dismiss women’s petitions?

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