On softness as power
We hear a lot about how women need to adjust the ways we navigate the world. Most often it’s in the corporate world, where it seems like we’re constantly being told to harden our communicative posturing, that our ways of operating are never quite as effective as they could be.
Take Just Not Sorry as one of the most recent examples. It’s a new Gmail plugin that underlines ‘sorry’ and ‘just’ (among other qualifiers) in women’s emails and encourages us to delete them. The two women and one man behind the plugin say they want women to “stop qualifying our message and diminishing our voice.” But this is all I hear: write, speak and act like a man would if you want to be taken seriously.
And whenever I hear someone tiredly spouting that women are too passive, I always think the same thing: why is it that interacting with others in ways that are kind and accommodating automatically mean we’re passive? And how is it that exercising kindness became such a weakness? I like to think I’m pretty good at getting things done without walking all over people. You know the world is a backwards, messed up place when softness, kindness and accommodation are valued less than (often unearned) dominance and antagonism simply because the former are often associated with women and the latter with men.
Harriet Minter, who wrote an op-ed in the Guardian on Just Not Sorry, summed it up pretty succinctly: “If being successful in a man’s world means emulating the worst traits of those men, then I’ll take middle of the road thanks. Rather than holding our hands up and apologising for our choice of words, let’s stand up for them. Let’s stand up for taking people’s feelings into consideration when we speak, for not seeing arrogance as a virtue, for thanking people for their contributions and for being sorry for putting our work onto other people. Let’s stop apologising for being women and instead demand that men behave differently.”
Once, a man I was working for had me call a support line to fix a tech problem. I was talking to the support person on the other end of the line when I guess my boss decided I wasn’t getting anything done, because he took over and started speaking in a completely patronizing, antagonistic way. He ended up angrily hanging up without anything being fixed. I wanted to (but didn’t, of course) say that if he had just let me calmly and kindly level with the guy, we might have accomplished something.
Throughout history, women have been quietly and softly, often out of necessity but also because kindness is a valid way to get things done, getting things done. There’s that overused Laurel Thatcher Ulrich quote: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” But what about the well-behaved women who did? What about the women who were soft and kind and, because of that, accomplished really great things?
The first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Jane Addams in the early 1900’s, made her way to prominent positions in state government by innovating in early social work. She “pioneered the concept of settlement houses,” creating a housing system that also offered social supports. Her kindness became political power and influenced care policy for the next century to come.
(And while it’s important, of course, to note that the stereotype of women preferring or being naturally suited to caretaking is absolutely harmful, it’s equally as important to recognize the caretaking work and emotional labour women do perform as credible work — just as it’s important to recognize that the care women put into their professional communication is valid and constructive.)
When Fortune ranked the world’s most powerful leaders last year, Geoff Covin made an observation about the 15 women on the list: “Many of the women on this list hold no direct authority over anyone. Johnetta Elzie promoting peaceful protest in Ferguson, Missouri, human rights activist Beatrice Mtetwa in Zimbabwe, leadership apostle Frances Hesselbein – none of them can be effective by giving orders.”
These are all women who’ve mastered the soft powers of negotiation and cooperation. In other words, all of these women have achieved great things without acclimatizing to the ways men very often navigate the world.
And softness in femininity doesn’t just translate to political power. Let’s think about Oprah Winfrey, consistently one of America’s highest earning celebrities, who’s built an empire on kindness and compassion. Having dealt with sexual abuse as a child, she certainly has reasons to be hardened to the world, yet she’s instead chosen softness — and look where it’s gotten her.
India Ame’ye wrote You Look Like Something Blooming, a book full of unapologetic softness. In it is this passage: “Many women have been tricked out their softness, inaccurately led to believe that it equates to weakness and docility. But a soft woman doesn’t necessarily mean a fragmented woman. There’s actually great strength in the irresistible softness of femininity. While she knows how to yield and surrender when necessary, a soft woman could be leading a pack a wolves and not be noticed. Plus she’s got the charm to make others think they are actually leading, but gently and most lovingly, they are indeed being led.”
None of this is to say that women who are loud, abrasive, hardened and have found agency that way are any less valid in those choices or ways of being. It’s just to say this: after centuries of being told to quiet down, after adapting to that, moulding our power in ways so as to overcome those social constraints, forgive me if I absolutely see women’s softness as power.