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Reconsider old wives' tales
The power of passing stories
I can’t stop thinking about this article. It’s on the subversive wisdom of ‘old wives’ tales’, and the writer, Hillary Brenhouse, basically articulates why Diem exists. The history of old wives’ tales is my Roman Empire. As Brenhouse writes, “For what could possibly be less credible than a story told by a woman?”
What ‘old wives’ tales’ do you remember being told as a kid? The one I always think of: You’ll sink to the bottom of the swimming pool if you swim too soon after eating. Another favorite of mine that Brenhouse brings up: If you swallow chewing gum, it will sit in your stomach for seven years. While these stories aren’t scientific by any stretch, they’re rooted in simply trying to keep children safe. But of course, when women tell stories like these, they’re not always quite as exaggerated.
“Resistance to the lived stories of women” is “founded on the false binary between the emotional (female) and the intellectual (male), and intended to subordinate the former.” —Melissa Febos
Where did old wives’ tales begin? As Brenhouse points out, “The imagined divide between ‘legitimate’ knowledge and the stories of women is archaic, older even than the King James Bible, in which Paul advises Timothy to “refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness.” But the phrase “old wives’ tales” became popular in America in the 19th century when a nascent medical establishment decided it would dismantle and replace female lay-healing traditions. Midwives, many of them older Black and immigrant women, were the final holdouts in this takeover. They were so thoroughly disparaged by male obstetricians that midwifery was essentially outlawed in the United States. (Not really that surprising!)
Much like Brenhouse, and I’m sure many of you, a lot of my personal growth and understanding of important things (like… my entire body) has come from stories other women shared with me—whether it was my mum, sister, peers, colleagues or strangers on the internet. Sometimes, these stories were validating. Often, these stories were life-saving. But when we flippantly mislabel valuable whisper networks as “old wives’ tales,” it makes this type of information-sharing seem unimportant.
“Women’s care has always depended on women’s sharing stories with one another. I’m reminded of it every time I find myself scrolling message boards into the night, searching not just for answers but to feel less alone. There they are, other women who didn’t feel quite right after the loop electrosurgical excision procedure, or LEEP, which removes abnormal tissue from the cervix. Other women wondering if their copper IUDs might actually be responsible for their strange conditions.” —Hillary Brenhouse. (Hillary, Diem is here for you!)
When we write off the anecdotal stories of women as non-trustworthy, it impacts how we value this kind of information-sharing on a macro level. Our disregard for these conversations correlates directly to how communication structures (and now, social platforms) have done little to build systems inspired by this feminine urge to incessantly pass information. The value we place on these conversations, which are wells of important knowledge for women, also impacts how data is stored. If these conversations were deemed more valuable, they would be indexed differently online. They would be more searchable and easier to access.
Relegating women’s stories as old wives’ tales directly contributes to the gender information gap. I personally believe women can collectively close the gender information gap by doing what we do best: passing information to each other socially. And what would happen if we do so in a space that rewards, indexes, and turns this information into resources for everyone?
We see the subversive wisdom of ‘old wives tales’ shared in Diem the whole time. Stuff like:
Diem is not only inspired by the feminine desire to tell stories, but it’s also a searchable database of knowledge that will work to restore the lost wisdom of the generations that came before us. I’ll leave you with this final quote from the article:
“Perhaps the authors of the ill-founded old wives’ tales we swap were operating according to a different kind of wisdom, the kind we aren’t used to recognizing. Swallowing too much gum will indeed block your digestive tract. Reading in low light causes eye strain. It’s worth looking beyond the distinction between science and superstition, toward what else might count as knowledge.” — Hillary Brenhouse
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this… what have you learned from other women? Has storytelling profoundly impacted your lived experience? What’s an experience you had that you want to share with others? Share them with me in Diem. The more conversations we create on the platform, the sooner we’ll close the gender information gap.
FYI! We launched the Diem app—Diem is designed to embrace the whims, questions, and hushed conversations that women have been having “behind closed doors” for centuries. Our community talks about topics just like this newsletter every day. Join us via web, iOS or Android.
If you want to try Diem before downloading, text your personal, funny, important, and thought-provoking questions to +1 (518)-855-3436 — (🇺🇸 #s only atm!)
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