I hear it all the time. I see it all the time. In general, many women seem to think that if they use assertiveness for boundary setting they will be seen as being either a “bitch” or a “feminazi”.
Are they right? Yes and no.
There are powerful forces in society that directly benefit when women are not assertive due to their fear of being perceived as aggressive, as angry, as a bitch. These forces are so successful in comingling female assertiveness with bitchiness that very few women (or men) can provide an example of what it means to be “happy assertive”.
Assertiveness can be a straightforward method of communication without a specific emotional attachment. Aggressiveness is usually powered by strong emotions. But assertiveness need not be. A person can be calm assertive, happy assertive, sad assertive or any other type of assertive.
For example, imagine you go to a concert and your favorite band is throwing T-shirts to the crowd, what do you do? If you really want a T-shirt, you jump up and down, you wave your arms and call out. You are being happy assertive. You are clearly communicating your desire for a T-shirt. If you push people aside or rip a T-shirt out of someone’s hands, then you are being aggressive.
Assertiveness is a powerful tool for boundary setting. Without it, people are less likely to set boundaries. They depend unclear methods of communication such as body language or hedging words and phrases. They say “sorry”, even when they’re not. They depend upon other people’s goodwill to respect them. And eventually, after being bottled up for too long, they explode in anger and really do come across in an aggressive manner. They come to depend upon feeling angry to truly speak their mind. When they are not angry, they resort back to passive and unclear methods of communication to avoid unwanted conflict and negative emotions.
Who benefits when women are not assertive? The simplistic answer is men. But that is not accurate. There exists large percentage of men in society who would like to see women be more assertive and communicate more clearly in their everyday lives. The men that benefit from unassertive women are the men that take advantage of unassertive women (and men). And let’s not forget the women who also take advantage of other unassertive women (and men).
Just as assertiveness is not bitchiness for women, neither is assertiveness “bitterness” for someone with a disability, nor is assertiveness “uppity-ness” for someone who is a minority or at an economic disadvantage. The terms bitchiness, bitterness, and uppity-ness are all used to discourage people from asserting their rights. And chances are everyone has judged someone else with those terms at one time or another.
Predatory and manipulative men have been highly successful in convincing many women that if they speak up for themselves, if they communicate their boundaries firmly, they are bitches. This is a societal issue that tickles down from the top and influences the way in which we all think. Just as women don’t respect men who don’t stand up for themselves, neither do men respect women who don’t stand up for themselves. But men (who are not minorities or don’t have a disability or are not at an economic disadvantage) who stand up for themselves are usually seen in a more positive light.
For women on the other hand, the acceptable path of assertiveness is narrow. Unassertive women may be more liked, but they are not as respected. Assertive women are usually less liked, but are more apt to be respected. Aggressive women are much less likely to be liked and may or may not be respected.
Society to it’s detriment, tells women that it is very important to be liked. Being liked comes from being nice. Being nice means acquiescing to other people’s demands and not being assertive. And certainly not being bitchy. As a result, female respect is sacrificed in this eternal quest for likability.
Society benefits when all it’s members respect each other, engage in clear communication, and assert their rights. Manipulative and predatory people benefit when people don’t. They feed off chaos, confusion, distrust, and disrespect.
When we make it more acceptable for women to be assertive and set firm boundaries, society as a whole will win. Women will feel more supported in calling out the bad behavior of predatory and manipulative people which in turn will help to curtail it and diminish those that engage in it.