Women of my vintage put up with a lot of crap. Passed over for a promotion because of our gender. Looked through when it came to gathering opinions around the boardroom table. (I was the only female on a management team, for a time.) It was part of the deal. Early on, I was confused about relationships. I never knew whether I had “the right” to be firm with men who were treating me like a thing. Being a “nice girl” didn’t help.
While little boys of my time were taught to be tough and not show emotion, little girls were molded into mild versions of Stepford wives.
When I started in Toronto radio the first time (1990) it wasn’t long before someone asked me if I’d met a certain male colleague yet. I hadn’t. “Oh, you will”, another male colleague said, “it’s a rite of passage for all new female employees.” He didn’t explain further.
What the hell?
One day a few weeks later, in the break room a wiry man a few years older than me introduced himself. His second or third sentence was the assertion – not a question – that I’d be coming to his place for dinner and wine and – the implication was obvious. We had literally just met. No sparks had flown between us. We hadn’t discovered we had things in common. He said it simply, like, pass the sugar.
“Uh, thanks, no, I can’t, I work nights”, I responded nervously.
“You don’t work every day. We’ll do it on a weekend.”
“Well, I’ll have to see… “, I muttered as I skittered away.
I would rather have said anything than an outright “no”. He was being rude, creepy, and presumptuous. But my training told me I wasn’t supposed to make a fuss. The messages of my youth were clear. If you’re “difficult” people won’t like you. No one ever told me to trust my gut instinct. Instead, I was supposed to be tough and swallow my intuition. Don’t hurt his feelings even while he’s treating you like a thing he’s going to bring home to play with, whether or not it wants to play.
The indoctrination into “nice girl” had thousands of small moments that started in childhood. Kiss your weird Uncle hello. Don’t say you don’t like something and eat it when it’s offered. Be seen, not heard.
As a late teen, when I still lived at home, I was camping with my boyfriend when he left me at the campground with no ride back. Not a local campground. One several hours from home. It involved beer. He had become jealous that a guy sat beside me at the campfire and talked to me. So, he left me there. I didn’t know most of the others including the guy I had an innocent, brief conversation with.
There were no cellphones, no email, no way to call home without a pay phone available. And there wasn’t one.
I made it home the next day without getting hurt (or raped or killed). My Mom met me at the back door. She didn’t ask how I was or how I got back. In a stage-whisper, she informed me that my boyfriend was in the other room and to “be nice! He feels really bad”.
It felt crazy then and it reads crazy now. It’s an over-the-top – but real – example of making sure this girl was always “nice”.
Welcomed in (and fed) by my Mom, my boyfriend was able to convince himself that what he did wasn’t so bad. He half-heartedly apologized and had the full expectation that I would easily forgive him. I’m happy to report that I lost my shit! On his way out, he and my Mom exchanged looks like, wow, she must be on her period! It took a lot of stamina to swim against that formidable tide.
Before him, I dated a guy several years older than me. One night, he got upset and slapped me across the face. Had I told my Dad or brother, there would have been trouble. I ought to have caused trouble. He deserved some trouble. Instead, I kept it to myself but still went out with him until I had a moment of clarity. I distinctly recall wondering whether the slap was really bad enough for me to call it quits.
The pushy guy at work was a new experience in a new place. I didn’t want the label “difficult”. It didn’t occur to me that everyone knew he was predatory and I was the sympathetic character. I went to great lengths to avoid him. Soon after, another young female started at the station. I took her aside and warned her. He was a rite of passage, a guy with no game whose type was everyone. “Tell him to eff off”, I advised, “it’s all he’ll understand.”
Related: Why Being an Asshole Can Be a Valuable Life Skill by Mark Manson
I’ve written before about the General Manager who made it clear that getting the job depended on me letting him “show me around town”. I was nice about that, too. I gently rebuffed him, removing my knee from under his hand, and lost any chance at the job. Which I no longer wanted.
These stories are not unique to me. Well, maybe the one about my Mom. But I’m happy to report that she radically changed her perspective over the years. Can you imagine the messages she received about being nice? It’s impressive that she evolved past them at all.
I’m proud that our younger sisters are more aware, more confident and more outspoken about what’s right and wrong. They say “no” more quickly, and protect themselves and their space, their wishes, their own power.
But I caution them not to abuse it or confuse it. A man you don’t find attractive asking you out isn’t the same as sexual assault. Sometimes, some women set the line unrealistically far back. Men are flawed and working on their personalities and confidence, just like women. Know your rights. Protect yourself. Just don’t expect perfection from anybody. Including yourself.