We dedicate this to Harriet DeHaven Cuddihy, whose old world elegance and impeccably irreverent humor, deep curiosity and optimism made her one of my true idols. Words cannot say how much we will miss her.
As a woman who was raised in a society where it is implied that women should be agreeable and amenable, where speaking up for yourself can label you” difficult,” I personally have found it difficult to do that very thing. Why is it important to have personal boundaries and make sure they are not crossed? More importantly, how can we keep them while coming off strong and not strident?
I have been contributing to goop for several years now and this was the first time that the question raised stopped me in my tracks. I found myself thinking endlessly about the topic of women’s assertiveness versus women being perceived as strident. The first thing I did before sitting down to write this answer was to find a definition for the word, strident. Princeton includes in their definition of strident such descriptions as: Conspicuously and offensively loud, given to vehement outcry, raucous, unpleasantly loud, and brash. In addition: Shrill, grating, and obnoxious. So, was the question really how can women be strong and assertive and not be labeled with these negative traits? Next, I found myself talking to friends, colleagues, and even my two daughters (ages 24 and 20) about their thoughts on the topic. They all agreed that even in this progressive era, women still have to walk the fine line between being strong and powerful without being labeled “the bitch.” I finally realized that what I was really dealing with was the fact that in 2010, we as women still struggle with this issue. After all, women serve on the Supreme Court, have been Speaker of the House of Representatives and have even sought the Presidential nomination. Women are in power in all areas of the workforce and are an ever growing force in the Military.
Why then are we still grappling with the fear of being seen as strident when we are being strong, assertive, and powerful in our lives? I went on to scan the Internet to see what was being written about women and assertiveness. One article on how to be more assertive for women contained all the usual tips, but the final line is what got me.”A final word of advice, too much assertiveness can be mistaken for rude, crass, and possible disrespectful behavior. Find the middle ground before asserting your newfound confidence.” In essence, even when you need to be assertive, dim your lights!
When Hillary Clinton made her historic bid for the nomination to run for President (in 2008), one of her campaign’s biggest concerns was how she could appear forceful as a leader but not strident because she was female. As I think back on over 20 years of being a psychotherapist, I have helped many female patients struggle with the issue of finding their voices, first in their family of origin, then in their intimate relationships and, ultimately, in the workplace and society. From their earliest years, girls in most of the world’s societies are socialized to quiet their voices and maximize their femininity so as not to appear socially unacceptable. In her seminal book, In A Different Voice (1982), Carol Gilligan and her colleagues followed girls from ages seven and up through adulthood and found a distinct shift in girl’s voices as they grew from children, through adolescence and into womanhood. What these researchers basically discovered was that in order for girls to feel they could remain in relationships with each other, males and in society, they had to dim their voices and in essence as Gilligan states,”use their voices to cover their inner experiences rather than convey their inner worlds.”
My wonderful suite-mate for many years, Dr. Anna Fels, writes in her groundbreaking book, Necessary Dreams (2004), “that for women, silence is a subtle but pervasive element in women’s struggles with ambition.” Her basic thesis is that for women, ambition still remains fraught with conflict, and explains how women often choose to nurture and defer rather than compete openly and assertively with men. What so much of the literature on this topic suggests is that traditional “femininity” includes being deferential, supportive, empathetic, and caretaking. These traits seem to clash with being forceful and assertive. This all being said, what is the answer? How can women assert themselves and their needs without being labeled “strident?”
Unfortunately, I do not believe there is one simple solution. What I do know is that women have to continue to take initiative in getting their voices heard and forming and expressing their views without being paralyzed by fears of disapproval and judgment. Women do not have to give up their femininity to compete with each other, or with men. Coming to grips with this issue is most likely a learning process for all women from their earliest days on up through their later adult lives. As women we must hold on to radical hope that we will continue to evolve out of our fear of being judged so that our voices, even the loudest ones will be heard and not dismissed!
– Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes is a leading psychologist with a private practice in New York City for the past 15 years.