When #MeToo began, I felt two brand new emotions; relief that women’s voices were being listened to and believed, and a sense of belonging within the world of women at large. All my life, I’ve felt like an outsider when it comes to groups of ciswomen. Individual friends have never been the issue; I have friends who have lasted since high school, and make new close female friends easily.
But when three or more women identify as a group for any reason — friends, in-laws, PTA, work buddies, writing groups, volunteer organizations — I find myself invariably and solidly outside their lines of connection.
I used to attribute this separation to my upbringing among boys, the youngest of five kids who had three older brothers and little guidance into the world of girls. Sports, climbing trees, intellectual sparring and competition were my childhood, and I knew early in my adulthood that my way of interacting was different from how women behave in groups. I was, I used to say, raised by wolves.
With my knowledge of and affection for sports, it has always been easier to associate with men. They’re largely uncomplicated, entertaining, intelligent, and make perfectly suitable friends. If they’re cis-hetero, once they get past the fear that I’m interested in them sexually (dude, no) we can go on to have lasting and productive friendships.
But it’s impossible to avoid working with groups of women, particularly in music and literary arts. Volunteering leads to committee work, which means long hours in a conference room poring over the plans for an upcoming event. Meetings at one person’s house or another, tea or coffee in the kitchen, zoom calls where we share thoughts about what we’re reading or writing — fairly intimate settings, in which one might relax and feel comfortable.
Except I couldn’t. Like many women, I’m highly attuned to social cues, to the pursed lips and averted glances of disapproval. I know when a room goes quiet when I enter and the occupants exchange awkward looks, it usually means they’ve been talking about me.
And that is all fine and good. I am complete as a person without a large social group of women around me. I have friends, I have my husband, I have my work, I’m good. I don’t leave space in my life for people who treat me in ways that make me uncomfortable.
But there’s a narrative parallel to the social shaming that really sticks in my craw, particularly when it comes from women. These same groups of women like to share messages with each other like this graphic, “To the women who are labeled . . . ” It’s meant to be encouraging, sort of a “you go girl!” rah-rah sisterhood thing.
But it’s hollow.
Because the people calling women aggressive aren’t just men–it’s also women. The people communicating that women are “too much” are often other women. Women have long been the gatekeepers of social mores, conveying their dominance in silence and gossip, hushed murmurs gasping at the audacity of Certain Women to step outside the proscribed roles given to them by those in power.
That power is conferred not by some official with an embossing tool and a wax seal, it’s conferred by proximity to other power. Our system of capitalistic patriarchy elevates those with money or the appearance of money to the top of the heap, and that is overwhelmingly men. The women who play along by the rules of patriarchy — being the “good” wife to match the expected appearances in the acceptable venues (education, sports, business, church, politics) — have proximity to this superiority, and their own subset of this patriarchal power, and swing it with a vengeance whenever the structures holding them in place are threatened. This is why women are PART of the patriarchy that holds other women in lower positions.
Everything downstream from those major power centers is just a smaller iteration of the same thing. That’s why you see jockeying for position among the volunteers at the marching band fundraiser concession stand, even though there is little lasting change that comes from that work. People of all genders want to feel important. The way they assert themselves in groups in order to gain those positions of importance is key to the tone of the group and the effect on the powerless.
Research demonstrates that women who have played sports are more successful in business and management positions than women who haven’t played sports. They develop conflict resolution skills that situate them easily within the sphere of male communication styles. There’s similar research that one of the cultural differences between small boys and girls is that boys are encouraged to be physical and girls aren’t — which leads to girls turning their aggressive emotions into cudgels of social power which they wield over each other.
Remember; every human being has feelings. For men, the only feeling traditionally allowed is anger. For women, anger is the one feeling traditionally NOT allowed. But yes, we all have aggression, frustration, fear, anxiety. All of us. It’s how we handle our feelings that says who we are in our world, and how we treat other people when we’re experiencing those feelings that matters.
When I was a Girl Scout leader, we had a huge two-troop lock-in to watch and discuss the movie Mean Girls just as the girls were entering middle school. It was incredibly helpful to hear what the girls had to say, to help them work through these feelings of not belonging, understanding social structures, and maybe offset some of the impending power battles. We need something like that for adult women too.
There are many factors at work in the development of individuals, but the pattern of social hierarchy and bullying of women by women is unmistakable. Mocking, laughing at, making the target of gossip, ignoring people or responding in silence and other forms of shaming women for behavior that doesn’t meet expectations are all forms of control. It’s all a means of maintaining power. Women do it in subtle, petty, shitty ways that make other women either step out of the social circle (like me) or change their behavior and “get in line” so they’re acceptable and can stay within the circle.
It’s high time for women in groups to accept other women being assertive/difficult/awkward. Anyone who’s different from your “norm.” Really accept, the same way you would embrace the woman with the great footwear and expensive car. It’s time for women to call out the shitty back-stabbing behavior of their fellow women, the behind-the-hand whispers, the opaque negotiations that exile the less powerful and truly stand with and for each other. Too many women have had far too many experiences of women being unwelcoming, despite this widespread cultural talk about women needing to embrace our “too much”-ness.
Yes, it’s possible to go solo, to be strong and loud and independent–but to be accepted for that? To be embraced and encouraged for it by other women — instead of castigated or treated with silent rejection? THAT would be magical.
So ladies. LADIES. You know that old saw about treating other people the way you want to be treated? Could you just try combining that axiom with those “dance like nobody’s watching” memes you like to share? Think about why you’re talking about Jane when she’s not around. Really consider what’s going on for you, and deal with your emotions in a healthy and appropriate way. Could you “live, laugh, love” with the awkward lady who doesn’t know how to bake a cake? Maybe have wine o’clock with the one you think is “aggressive,” and find out what makes her tick. Stand up when she stands up, show her you’ve truly got her back. Listen to “bossy” women and see where their unheard ideas will take you.
I *promise* you will be rewarded with increased connections, an openness and loyalty you didn’t know was possible when you take the side of someone who has sat on the sidelines most of her life.
This may never become a widespread movement, but if this message resonates for you even a little bit, try to remember that feeling when you’re working in groups of women. You might be able to nip in the bud the social subterfuge that torpedoes the awkward/aggressive/Too Much women who are secretly incredible, brilliant, funny, strong and loyal.
Assertive Meg Who Takes Up Space