At last! Thank God for Greta Thunberg and her quiet revolution.
History is filled with radically quiet, quietly radical women, overlooked first by its male guardians then by the ‘strong women’ movement – fantastically welcome, but in danger of excluding the mild, the shy and the dull (a charming adjective ascribed to Dorothy Hodgkin by her own father).
In her field of climate change and activism, Greta is preceded by Claudette Colvin, Sylvia Earle and Sarojini Naidu – modest change makers, none of them as well-known as they deserve to be. Consider the photo of Alan Kurdi which shamed Europe into action. It was a picture which (for a tragically short-lived time) changed global policy but Nilufer Demir’s name is unknown, in the UK at least.
The loud and the material have always driven society, politics, religion, education, health and technology. Outside nunneries and monasteries, the reflective life belongs to a few, mostly male, writers and philosophers.
Women, meanwhile, have been stuck with Martha’s role. In the biblical story of the two sisters, Martha is the active, Mary the contemplative. Martha makes dinner, while Mary sits and listens to Jesus talk. Annoyed that no one’s helping, Martha passive-aggressively turns to Jesus and demands, ‘Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me.’
‘Martha, Martha,’ says Jesus, ‘thou art careful and troubled about many things:
But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.’
Jesus doesn’t tell Martha she’s wrong. Someone has to do the washing up (there are plenty of martyr Marthas who’ll remind us of that. Your Mum is probably one of them). But Mary’s contemplation is That Good Part – the one thing that really matters.
Of course, the story’s flawed – if Jesus were truly the son of God he’d have made dinner himself. But the truth is, silence, reflection and thought do need defending. Quietude has come in for a kicking, sometimes justifiably. It’s been a tool of oppression, denying education or voting rights and covering up abuse. But elective silence is also attacked. Remember when Trump mocked Ghazala Khan for not speaking? Or when Faizah Shaheen was detained on a plane – for reading a book about Syria? Apparently, the acquisition of knowledge is a suspicious act.
So that’s why we don’t celebrate, and often don’t even recognise, the quiet writers, scholars and translators: Anna Komnene, Anna Maria van Schurman, Constance Garnett. Or the scientists and astronomers, like Annie Jump Cannon or Virginia Apgar. These women may not make it into the bloody difficult women books which are finally – and thankfully – celebrating pilots and warriors. But their quiet, tangible influence is long overdue respect.
For a while now, increasing sales of colouring books and mindfulness apps have pointed to a craving for the contemplative. Even Fleabag was turned on by the Quakers. The climate crisis has finally woken us up to the destruction caused by noise and dazzle.
Which isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with extrovert dynamism. But there is a welcome place for considered deliberation where we can find that thing that’s ‘needful.’ Greta Thunberg’s focused stillness in the midst of political bedlam is a truly quiet revolution.