WHERE DID I LEARN THAT AN
OUTSPOKEN WOMEN IS UNDESIRABLE?
Matters, Part 2
The following column is the
second of a two-part series. The first,
"Yes, Women Have Bodies" (DSM,
Autumn 2004), brought my inbox more
emails and led to more lively
conversations than any other piece I have
written for DreamSeeker thus far.
This, along with the fact that gay
marriage and abortion dwarfed war and
poverty as key issues on election day
lead me to think that body and sex lie on
a very sensitive and discordant cusp in
this countryon that elusive edge
where feelings run high, attitudes shift
. . . and change happens. By all means,
lets keep talking.
It was probably 7:30 a.m. I was
on a train from D.C. to Philadelphia. The
train was rocking me gently back and
forth, and I fell asleep easily, my head
resting on my balled-up sweatshirt
against the window.
I woke up maybe an hour
later. Good, I thought to myself. I
needed that. As I slowly dragged
myself from my dreaming world, I became
aware of something lying on my leg. I
looked down. A mans suit coat was
resting against my right thigh. It was
then that I noticed the middle-aged man
who had boarded the train while I was
sleeping and now sat beside me, head
leaned back, eyes closed.
Still groggy, I made a
small motion to move his coat from my
leg, then realized, horrified, that
beneath the coat lay his hand. My
businessman train-mate was sleeping with
his hand on my thigh.
I cant remember
exactly what happened next. I must have
said something like "Oh, my
God!" as I threw his hand from my
leg. He must have shifted for a moment in
his pretend sleep, but other than that,
paid me no mind.
What I do remember is
sitting there for the remainder of the
trip, trying to build up the gumption to
do what I had once been taught to do:
Turn to this man and say in a very loud
voice on this very quiet train,
"Excuse me, sir. Your hand was on my
thigh. I would appreciate it if you kept
your hands to yourself." And then to
watch while all heads turned to the two
of us, and he, surprised and embarrassed,
moved to a different seat.
I couldnt do it.
Instead, I sat in silence and decided it
would be easier to say nothing. Maybe
it was unintentional, I justified,
even though everything in me knew it was
not. If I get everyones
attention like that, what if people think
Im out of line? What if I really
hurt his feelings? I dont want
anyone to hate me . . .
I know many women who were taught
to be quiet, who grew up believing the
Bible told them their wishes would one
day be second to their husbands,
who learned that a woman who speaks her
mind is rude, maybe even a
"bitch," andworst of
allunfeminine and unattractive.
youre thinking. Weve been
talking about this ever since the
resurgence of the Womens Movement
in the 1970s. I thought that way back in
1931 Virginia Woolf slayed the
"Angel in the House"the
woman who was "utterly unselfish. .
. . She sacrificed herself daily. . . .
in short, she was so constituted that she
never had a mind or a wish of her own,
but preferred to sympathize always with
the minds and wishes of others." Can
we talk about something else?
Yet here I am in the
new millennium, young, progressive, and
fighting my own Angel on a train headed
I thought I had been
taught differently. My mother is the kind
of woman who says what she thinks. I grew
up listening to her tell my dad he needed
to listen before interrupting. And when I
was five, a woman butted in the bathroom
line ahead of us at the circus
(apparently she really had to go), and my
mom let the whole crowd know her thoughts
on the matter.
At school, my teachers
were boisterous women from Cuba and
Argentina, and African-American women who
had learned there was no other way to
survive in a society stacked against them
than to be strongin word and
I grew up arguing with
boy cousins and brothers, preferring
soccer to shopping, and later finding my
competitive, assertive personality made
me different from the girlsand
slightly intimidating to the guysI
met as a transfer student at a Mennonite
I am still more
assertive than many of the women I meet,
particularly in Mennonite circles. But I
have also worried that my forwardness is
part of the reason for my
less-than-thriving dating life, and I
have sometimes chosen to play weaker than
I amand often wished I was. In
college I found myself surprisingly quiet
in some of my classesand more
recently on that train from D.C.
Where did I learn that an
outspoken woman is undesirable? Where did
I learn to not only keep some of my
opinions inside, but also to downplay my
intelligence, my successes, my skills as
When I started to pay
attention, I realized the reasons were
all around me. Theres Sleeping
Beauty, Rapunzel, and Mary Jane Watson,
played by Kirsten Dunst in Sam
"Spiderman"women who are
kind but helpless. (Thank God for Gretel
who uses her wits to cook the wicked
witch in her own oven.)
Teresa Heinz Kerry who made a flurry in
the media when she told a reporter to
"shove it." (Would they have
even batted an eye if she had been a
church, where I learned that it is
through service and self-sacrifice that I
will find everlasting lifetheology
that is no doubt better suited for a
self-assured man than for a woman who has
already been socialized to lose herself
in making others happy.
As a female athlete I
have observed that in general women
athletes approach competition differently
than men do. The best coaches are aware
of these differences. If you want men to
improve, you pit them against each other.
You criticize them and compare them with
one another. As they try to beat each
other and compete for starting spots,
they get better. Then they walk off the
soccer field and remain friends.
For women, on the other
hand, competition and criticism often
have the reverse effect. In my
experience, we downplay ourselves so as
not to show up a teammate. Instead of
motivating us, criticism from outside
sources (like from a coach) can lead to
greater self-criticism and a downward
spiral in self-confidence. We dont
want to compete seriously with one
another because we fear we will lose
friends when we leave the field.
These dynamics also
play out in classroom settings. I have
found that men enter easily into the
healthy competition of intellectual
debate. They play a game of
one-upmanship, each trying to prove
himself smartest and most articulate.
They argue back and forth, leaving the
discussion with friendships intact.
In co-ed classrooms, I
have found that women generally are
slower to speakin pasrt, I suspect,
because we believe we must have something
of real value to say to justify taking up
space in the conversation. And what we do
say is less likely to be argumentative.
We are careful not to sound smarter than
our neighbor, and we nod our heads at
each other, not in agreement but as a way
of saying, "Yes, go on. Im
listening." We take arguments
personally and worry that any arrogance
could scar a friendship.
In Talking 9 to 5, Deborah
Tannen writes that "a man who learns
to speak more forcefully will be
perceived as more masculinebut so
will a woman, and the consequences for
her will be quite different." As
long as we talk about outspoken women as
having "balls," thiose of us
who are women will always have a hard
time speaking our minds.
Until being assertive
is considered as feminine as it is
masculine, we women will always be
sacrificing some of our sense of
womanhood when we speak up.
Guiding my comments,
then, is the contention that boys and
girls, in general, are socialized
differently. Expectations of adult men
and women are generally different
in limiting ways. But of course
generalizations are always incomplete.
Many men feel as silenced as women by
one-upmanship models of relating. The
characteristics that define
"femininity" in our society
The answers are not
easy. Classrooms and
workplaceswhich currently benefit
an assertive and competitive conversation
styleneed a redesign. We need to
teach girls to speak up and boys to do
more listening. And in the meantime,
sleazy men should learn to keep their
hands to themselves.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, suggests
fending off the winter blues with hot
tea, a weekly swim, and a few road trips.
Good conversation is also a must.
Shed love to hear your thoughts on
this columnor anything else.
Contact her at email@example.com.