by Susan Wittig Albert
As women, we have always found ourselves in story. From the beginning of human existence, while we planted and harvested and prepared food, spun thread and wove cloth, tended our babies and cared for our elderly parents, we told one another the stories of our lives, and the lives of our grandmothers and mothers and daughters and granddaughters. Our shared stories became a many-voiced chorus singing the same song: the story-song of women at work and women at play, women loving and living, women birthing, women dying. Those stories were full of pain because human lives have always been like that. They were full of joy because lives are like that, too. Pain and joy were woven like golden threads through the full, rich, round stories of women’s lives, passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter through the generations, so that the experiences of women would not be forgotten.
Of course, the urge to shape our lives in story is not just a woman’s urge. As women remembered themselves in story, so did men, telling tales in which men worked and played and fought and died, honorably and dishonorably; tales in which men governed, wisely and unwisely; tales in which men loved women, fathered children, revered parents.
Then men learned to write and wrote these stories down so that they could share their experiences with other men and pass their knowledge of themselves from generation to generation. When writing became printing, these stories, oral and written, were gathered into books, so that men’s triumphs and tragedies would be remembered.
But what happened to women’s stories when men learned to write? In one sense, nothing happened. Women still remembered themselves in story as they worked, played, and rested, and those stories still echoed through the generations, from heart to heart. But through the centuries of recorded history, far fewer women than men were initiated into the mysteries of writing, and those who did learn to write did not often write about the lives of women. Because ordinary women couldn’t write, their stories of ordinary life were lost or misremembered or changed. It was the same cycle of decay we find elsewhere in the oral tradition, in primitive tribes or among the enslaved in assimilated societies, overwhelmed by the rush to technology. Because the stories weren’t valued, they weren’t written. And because they weren’t written, they weren’t valued. They were just . . . well, women’s stories. Tittle-tattle. Old wives’ tales. Idle gossip, created to pass the empty hours when men weren’t around. Not worth writing down. Not worth much in the coin of the realm.
This is not to say, of course, that women’s stories vanished. A few women could write, but the stories they preserved were mostly the stories men taught them, or wanted them to write. Women appeared (often in starring roles) as characters in men’s stories, first orally, then in writing, then in print, and much later in movies and television. But these were (and are) women’s lives seen through the eyes of the male storyteller. Men told what they knew about women, what they had been taught, what other men expected to hear. That Adam was evicted from Paradise because he listened to Eve. That women are unclean (and dangerously mad) during their menstrual periods. That women can’t participate in business or government because they have inferior intellects. And until women began to have unmediated access to the printed page, we had no way of crying out, “Wait! These are not our bodies, or our minds, or our lives! They are only men’s imaginings of us!”
So men’s stories about women were accepted, uncorrected and unchallenged, as true stories, and everybody was fooled. Including women. For writing is such a persuasive medium that most of us believed that we were (or ought to be) like the women in men’s stories. We should wait patiently at home, while men discover new continents. We should love men, while men love ideas. We should give birth to children (preferably male children) while men give birth to writing and the electric light and the airplane and the bomb. Of course, there were many women who did not want to wait for men, or love men, or give birth to men’s children, but their refusals were scarcely heard and rarely heeded. Theirs were the deviant voices, singular, sinister, frightening. For many women, it was necessary (and easier) to be agreeable, to be what they were expected to be—at least on the surface.
But underneath the facade of conformable docility, beneath the appearance of a life shaped by men’s stories of how women ought to think and act, there has always echoed a different story, a true story. My story. Your story. Our stories, our real, true, different lives.
Susan Wittig Albert, founder and current president of Story Circle Network, is the author of several books including the long running China Bayles mystery series, two nonfiction books, and two memoirs. She currently blogs at Lifescapes.