Speaking to a group of clinicians and psychologists yesterday, Gloria Steinem told the crowd that she thinks that feminists of the 1970’s were “too nice.” Responding to a question about what she would change about the second-wave movement if she could, Steinem added: “We’re women. We were trained to be nice. We weren’t direct enough,” she said.
Holy shit, you guys. I don’t know if any of you grew up with mothers who were part of the 1970’s feminist movement, but I did, and she is certainly no shrinking violet. Picturing that group of women as not “direct” is kind of difficult.
But on the other hand (my mother is also Jewish), I will say a few things about this. I think Steinem makes an important point, and one that doesn’t only apply to women — everybody could probably stand to be a little more direct in communication, men and women alike. But I take issue with this idea that being “too nice” is somehow the same thing as not being direct.
I can speak for myself when I say that as a teenager and college-aged woman, I used to hear that refrain — that women are “trained to be nice” — always in a negative context. The way it translated for me was “OK, if nice is bad, does that mean I have to be a bitch in order to be a good feminist?” And so my idea of a good feminist, for a little while there, was an idea of someone who was…well, not nice. That’s what I thought I should aspire to be, in order to be a quote-unquote strong woman.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I say someone is not nice, I’m not usually trying to pay them a compliment. And therein lies the problem. Because, see, it’s nice to be nice. And it’s also nice to make your point clearly and stand up for yourself. But those things aren’t mutually exclusive. You can smile at people, you can decide to give up your seat on the bus, you can be friendly, you can be a good friend who is warm and open and non-judgmental…and at the same time, you can respectfully and directly state what you want at work, in relationships and in day-to-day life. And in some cases, you can insist on in. And if you don’t get it, you can make a decision about your next step (some people also call this “being a grown-up”).
But I think it’s dangerous to equate stifling your voice with being nice — or, to equate saying what you want with not being nice — and that’s what I understand Steinem to have meant. Look — there are already plenty of people who would be happy to support the notion that assertive women are bitches.
But they are wrong. And I think we, as feminists (if feminists, indeed we are) should stand up against that notion.