My friend Katherine has above-average intelligence, a fact which leaves her apologizing at least several times a week. When she notices that some emperor of an idea is naked and she points out its bare, wobbly legs, she ends up apologizing to those who saw it as finely clothed. When she points out the hole at the bottom of a half-full glass, there are those who will rail against her for looking where she ought not have looked — as if they didn’t have the same opportunity; as if no reasonable person would have looked there — as if she were just looking for a reason to find the glass half-empty. She ends up apologizing for seeing what was obvious to her, for upsetting other people, and for hurting the feelings of those with less curiosity. When Katherine is wrong she has no problem admitting it but, more often than not, what she finds herself apologizing for is being right. Her intelligence hurts other people’s feelings. It ruffles feathers. It makes others have to reconsider their thoughts or reevaluate their work, which seems to cause resentment.
Like women all over the world, Katherine has been culturally conditioned to be nice, kind, nurturing, empathetic and pleasing. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these attributes, for either gender, the overall result is that we’re still entrenched in a feminine/masculine tradition that leaves women like Katherine apologizing for having a strong mind. Strength, confidence, and speaking out — especially in a bold, assertive way — are still considered by many to be “unfeminine” traits and women who do so tend to come under much more fire than their male counterparts.
Some might counter that Rush Limbaugh was immediately brought to bear for his recent tirade against Sandra Fluke, but his statements were neither intelligent nor made from a place of strength. Limbaugh’s an uneducated shock jock who made a name for himself being outrageous and he knows how to keep himself in the news. More germane examples exist in the everyday realm of work and casual conversations. Recently, another intelligent friend of mine, after doing her own thorough research, decided not to support a program that had become popular with her colleagues. She quietly bowed out, but when she was asked why she shared the results of her investigation. The reaction was swift and harsh, not because L. wasn’t right (she was), but because, well, how dare she? Didn’t she know how invested her colleagues were in this? Didn’t she care? Why was she being so difficult? The message was that nice women should go along to get along. They shouldn’t question, shouldn’t be skeptical, shouldn’t rock the boat and if they do, well, then they’re not very nice people, are they? Those beliefs didn’t seem to apply to one of L.’s males peers who, a few weeks later, was applauded for being proactive and diligent when he brought up similar concerns.
In my long and storied work history, I’ve often discovered that the intellectual expressions of women, no matter how politely spoken or well-informed, cause more animus than the expressions of men — and far too often it’s other women who call foul when one of their own puts intellectual integrity above expected feminine niceties. We’ve still got a long way to go, baby, when there are those among our own sex who believe that it’s not kind, empathetic, nurturing, or pleasing — that it’s just not nice — to be a smart, outspoken, well-informed women.
It’s International Women’s Day. A day we wouldn’t even consider having in a culture of equality, where men and women were considered equals across the globe. We have this day to remind us of both our contributions and our continuing struggle.
Maybe we should also stop to consider what we’re being asked (or still asking other women) to apologize for in 2012.
I’m not sorry for being right.
I’m not sorry for doing my homework.
I’m not sorry for looking deeper.
I’m not sorry for being curious.
I’m not sorry for understanding more.
I’m not sorry for raising the bar.
I’m not sorry for my passion.
I’m not sorry for my experience.
I’m not sorry for my intuition.
I’m not sorry for seeing the holes in the argument.
I’m not sorry for spotting the hypocrisy.
I’m not sorry for catching the lie.
I’m not sorry for pursuing truth.
I’m not sorry for being tenacious.
I’m not sorry for being forthcoming.
I’m not sorry for being smart.
I’m not sorry for being competent.
I’m not sorry for pushing buttons.
I’m not sorry for speaking up.
I’m not sorry for raising questions.
I’m not sorry for not being “nice”
when nice means less-than.
Most of all, I’m not sorry for being a thinking woman.