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Grieving in Public

It’s been a couple weeks and the news cycle has moved on, but I can’t get Ghazala Khan’s face out of my mind. Her mouth is a shimmering perfection, neither smiling nor frowning. Her frameless glasses magnify her eyes, and her dark eyebrows float above them. Her pink cheeks have no sharp angles. Her blue hijab floats around her head. She stands without speaking while her husband speaks of their dead soldier son at the DNC convention. She seems uncomfortable, ready to be somewhere else, anywhere else, her fragility made more palpable by the calm and solid veneer of her blush, her lip-gloss, her plucked brows, her gauzy blue scarf. Her presence screams her grief.

We all know that Donald Trump infamously speculated, perhaps to his regret, that Khan “had nothing to say, she probably—maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.” Khan herself responded with a Washington Post op-ed: “Donald Trump has asked why I did not speak at the Democratic convention. He said he would like to hear from me. Here is my answer to Donald Trump: Because without saying a thing, all the world, all America, felt my pain. I am a Gold Star mother. Whoever saw me felt me in their heart.”

Trump’s criticism of Khan reflects a common misunderstanding of how American women publish their politics. By publish, I mean make public. Today women can make convention speeches, write op-eds, and run for president. They don’t have to worry like they used to that speaking outside the home, either aloud or in print, will lead to an accusation of witchcraft or harlotry. Women’s public vocality usually does not result in rape, exile, or state-sanctioned shame and punishment, though these threats still have a shadowy presence.

But even when they were not supposed to, American women had ways of making their ideas public, including through their choices about where to go, who to go with, and what to wear. Even when they could not speak, they could stand in a place that proclaimed their unity or divergence. Throughout U.S. history, women have often expressed public grief through other means than the simply verbal—standing in one place or another, wearing certain clothing or colors—offering incisive political insight without uttering a single word. Women’s grief has been a long-standing and influential agent in American politics.


George Catlin, "Tchow-ee-pút-o-kaw, a Woman," 1834. Smithsonian American Art Museum
George Catlin, “Tchow-ee-pút-o-kaw, a Woman,” 1834. Smithsonian American Art Museum

Consider the Lenape mother who, in 1728, mourned her murdered son. She wove a black wampum belt and gave it to a Lenape leader. Wampum was essential to diplomacy in colonial North America’s northeast region. Women wove belts and strings of wampum, and Native and European leaders alike used wampum to signal grievances, make petitions, and mark agreements. We don’t know what words, if any, accompanied this grieving Lenape mother’s wampum presentation to her leader, but in and of itself the long black belt palpably communicated her sorrow. The leader sent the belt to the Miamis and the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois), asking them to join with the Lenape. The unnamed mother’s belt was the material seed for a proposed international alliance wherein these nations would unite in their mourning for lost kin and “lift up their Axes” against the colonists. As with Ghazala Khan, whoever saw the belt felt the grieving mother in their heart.

Only a few years later, Mary Musgrove, a mixed-race Creek woman also known as Coosaponakeesa, stood on a bluff along the Savannah River. She was there to welcome Georgia’s first colonists. She wore a red petticoat, which English observers denigrated as a sign of her low class and vulgarity. But to the local Yamacraw Indians, her petticoat was the color of war. Less than two decades before, the Yamasee War had devastated the Native and European populations of nearby South Carolina. Musgrove’s own father had died in the war, and her petticoat was a reminder to Yamacraw onlookers that she had experienced loss. As a translator and the operator of Savannah’s new Indian trading post, Musgrove would protect her fellow Native peoples in their diplomatic negotiations. As with Ghazala Khan, the Native peoples who saw the red petticoat felt the grieving daughter in their heart.

Petticoat, 1758. Connecticut Historical Society.
Petticoat, 1758. Connecticut Historical Society.

Yes, Trump is correct that American women have not always been allowed to speak in public. We might even say punishing mouthy women is an American tradition. In the late 1630s, Anne Hutchinson spoke about her controversial religious views with others inside her house and was banished from Massachusetts. She along with much of her family died when Narragansetts attacked her new home during Kieft’s War. Massachusetts Puritans celebrated the bloody death of the “American Jezebel” along with the scalping of her young children as a just punishment from God. One of Hutchinson’s compatriots, Mary Dyer, eventually sailed for England after her banishment and then converted to Quakerism. She returned to New England, and Boston authorities executed her by hanging for preaching her religious beliefs. The gallows were an elm tree.

But though American women have not always been allowed public speech, it does not follow that the only political meaning they produce must be articulated through language. It seems fitting that Trump has experienced a kind of public shaming for his criticism of a silent Khan. And I was moved by Khan’s printed words in her op-ed. Yet what lingers in my mind and my memory is Khan’s grieving face. Mrs. Khan, I am sorry for your loss. I too have children. My middle child is a daughter, not a son. She too is someone who is dependable, someone who wants to help others. I cannot fathom your pain, but I saw you. I felt you in my heart.

–Caroline Wigginton is assistant professor of English at the University of Mississippi. She is the author of In the Neighborhood: Women’s Publication in Early America, published by University of Massachusetts Press in 2016.

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