Using Our Voice

October 11, 2022


I recently finished an engrossing historical novel called “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” by Lisa See, in which the author introduces her readers to nu shu, the phonetic, secret-code writing used for hundreds of years by women in a remote area of southern China.

 Developed a thousand years ago, it is thought to be the only written language in the world created by women exclusively for their own use. The secret writing “was to give us a voice,” Lily, the narrator, finally realizes in wonderment as she reaches mid-life.

 Because of the ancient custom of foot-binding (which produced, after unspeakable pain, feet of only 3 or 4 inches in length), for centuries most women were confined to the home and had to abide by patriarchal Confucian practices. Women weren’t taught standard written Chinese either, so they eventually invented their own type of writing:  nu shu.

Women weaved and embroidered their (perhaps subversive?) messages into cloth and shoes.  They wrote letters to female relatives and friends in nu shu, and they composed and sang nu shu songs, too.

Use of the secret language fell into disuse in the mid-20th century and is now limited to a few scholars who learned it from the last women who were literate in it.  (The last original writer of the secret script died in 2004, according to Wikipedia.  Foot-binding was outlawed in 1912, although it didn’t totally disappear until 1957).

I’ve been thinking about these clever women who, against all odds in patriarchal China, came up with a private language that gave them a voice.  Women today can also have a voice — if we vote.

Crucial mid-term elections are coming up in November as well as a presidential election in 2024.  Will women come out in force?  The answer appears to be yes.  In the past few months, women have been “registering to vote in numbers I’ve never witnessed, “ TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier wrote in The New York Times.  “In my 28 years of analyzing elections, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade seems to be one big reason for the massive uptick in women registering to vote.  It is, however, only one part of renewed activism among people who fear the nation might backslide on other rights that women currently enjoy, such as access to birth control and IVF fertility treatments.

It is past time for more women to run for public office. A total of 302 women won election or re-election in South Carolina in 2020, meaning that more than half of the women who ran for office during that election cycle were victorious.

But that’s not enough.  We need even more women to throw their hats into the ring and use their voices, says Senator Sandy Senn (R-Charleston). “…Republican or Democrat, women work well together, we think differently, and we get things done a lot faster,” she told a local television station.

 South Carolina ranks a dismal 46th among the 50 states in the number of women in elective office, with women holding just 17.6 percent of seats in the state legislature.  In terms of women holding statewide and national elective office, South Carolina also ranks abysmally low.

Studies have shown that women who hold elective office tend to be more collaborative and bipartisan than men.  They push for more policies meant to support women, children, education, health, civil rights, social welfare, and national security.  Women in Congress sponsor and co-sponsor more bills than men do and bring 9 percent more federal money to their districts, according to a study in the American Journal of Political Science.  

What’s not to like?

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who penned the majority opinion that struck down Roe v Wade, wrote that “Women are not without electoral or political power.”  True, Justice Alito. We just have to use it.

Jan Collins 2021-circle-crop

Jan Collins is a Columbia, South Carolina-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).