For so long, in the cultural discourse, there has been this idea that, for women to advance as men do, women just need to be more assertive–to act more as men act.
The question I have always had is: Why would women want to advance as men do? I mean, of course, women want equal pay and equal opportunity and equal rights. But any of us really want a world where, to get that, more people are acting as stereotypical men do?
I mean, as a man, even I do not want to have to act and be assertive as men are “supposed to be.” I don’t want to slot into this often unjust and unfair and insensitive society by prioritizing my assertiveness and aggression above my receptiveness and kindness. I don’t want to perpetuate the harm to myself or the world.
I’m not saying in any way that I know how women should be, of course. I am not pretending to give direction or advice to a gender of which I am not a member. I’m just saying that asking women to be like men is unfair and not right and that I hope not to live in a world where women act more like the stereotypical man.
For women in this cultural moment, assertiveness is perhaps the ultimate in aspirational personal qualities. At the nexus of feminism and self-help lies the promise that if we can only learn to state our needs more forcefully — to “lean in” and stop apologizing and demand a raise and power pose in the bathroom before meetings and generally act like a ladyboss (though not a regular boss of course; that would be unladylike) — everything from the pay gap to mansplaining to the glass ceiling would all but disappear. Women! Be more like men. Men, as you were…
… Perhaps instead of nagging women to scramble to meet the male standard, we should instead be training men and boys to aspire to women’s cultural norms, and selling those norms to men as both default and desirable. To be more deferential. To reflect and listen and apologize where an apology is due (and if unsure, to err on the side of a superfluous sorry than an absent one). To aim for modesty and humility and cooperation rather than blowhard arrogance.
Maybe to some men, this sounds like an assault. But to me, it sounds like a relief. I am so beyond and exhausted by being what a man is supposed to be. I’m tired of being normalized to be the stoic one and protective one and aggressive one and all the things. I’m tired of literally building myself a potential heart attack by perpetually keeping my blood boiling for battle, as men are socialized to do.
The only place where I differ with Ruth is that I don’t believe, as a boy, I needed to be trained to be cooperative and differential and kind. Maybe we men need training and other help to return to our more sensitive natures. But as a boy, I merely needed not to be trained and normalized to be arrogant and individualistic. I merely needed my true self–with all its inherent sensitivity and emotionality–to be allowed to shine. To not be told I was a sissy when I cried. To not be told, as I was, that I should want to go to war to protect the women and children. Not to be told I had no value if I didn’t win.
What a world we could have if we embraced the kind of values Ruth writes about! One where my sister and daughter and my partners had all the unearned societal privileges that I have. One where we all get to prioritize–and are valued for being–loving and cooperating rather than getting and winning. What a world we would have if, instead of women leaning in, we men leaned out.