Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying (1975)
These notes were first read at the Hartwick Women Writers' Workshop, founded and directed by Beverly Tanenhaus, at Hartwick College, Oneonta, New York in June 1975. They were published as a pamphlet by Motheroot Press in Pittsburgh, 1977; in Heresies: A Feminist Magazine of Art and Politics, vol. 1, no. 1; and in a French translation by the Québecois feminist press, Les Editions du Remue-Ménage, 1979.
It is clear that among women we need a new ethics; as women, a new morality. The problem of speech, of language, continues to be primary. For if in our speaking we are breaking silences long established, "liberating ourselves from our secrets" in the words of Beverly Tanenhaus, this is in itself a first kind of action. I wrote Women and Honor in an effort to make myself more honest, and to understand the terrible negative power of the lie in relationships between women. Since it was published, other women have spoken and written of things I did not include: Michelle Cliff's "Notes on Speechlessness" in Sinister Wisdom no. 5 led Catherine Nicolson (in the same issue) to write of the power of "deafness", the frustration of our speech by those who do not want to hear what we have to say. Nelle Morton has written of the act of "hearing each other into speech" [Nelle Morton, "Beloved Image!", paper delivered at the National Conference of the American Academy of Religion, San Francisco, California, December 28, 1977]. How do we listen? How do we make it possible for another to break her silence? These are some of the questions which follow on the ones I've raised here.
(These notes are concerned with relationships between and among women. When "personal relationship" is referred to, I mean a relationship between two women. It will be clear in what follows when I am talking about women's relationships with men.) The old, male idea of honour. A man's "word" sufficed - to other men - without guarantee. "Our Land Free, Our Men Honest, Our Women Fruitful" - a popular colonial toast in America. Male honour also having something to do with killing: I could not love thee, Dear, so much/Lov'd I not Honour more, ("To Lucasta, on Going to the Wars"). Male honour as something needing to be avenged: hence the duel.
Women's honour, something altogether else: virginity, chastity, fidelity to a husband. Honesty in women has not been considered important. We have been depicted as generically whimsical, deceitful, subtle, vacillating. And we have been rewarded for lying. Men have been expected to tell the truth about facts, not about feelings. They have not been expected to talk about feelings at all.
Yet even about facts they have continually lied.
We assume that politicians are without honour. We read their statements trying to crack the code. The scandals of their politics: not that men in high places lie, only that they do so with such indifference, so endlessly, still expecting to be believed. We are accustomed to the contempt inherent in the political lie.
To discover that one has been lied to in a personal relationships, however, leads one to feel a little crazy.
Lying is done with words, and also with silence.
The woman who tells lies in her personal relationships may or may not plan or invent her lying. She may not even think of what she is doing in a calculated way.
A subject is raised which the liar wishes buried. She has to go downstairs, her parking meter will have run out. Or, there is a telephone call she ought to have made an hour ago. She is asked, point-blank, a question which may lead into painful talk: "How do you feel about what is happening between us?" Instead of trying to describe her feelings in their ambiguity and confusion, she asks, "How do you feel?" The other, because she is trying to establish a ground of openness and trust, begins describing her own feelings. Thus the liar learns more than she tells. And she may also tell herself a lie: that she is...
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