Lessons for Girls, numbers two and three: Opting Out, and On Pity

bartelbyDr. Crazy has made a contribution to our feminist vade mecum with Lessons for Girls, Number Two:  Opting Out.  She writes,

If I wish I had learned one lesson earlier in life, it’s this: it’s okay to opt out of toxic situations and conversations. Opting out doesn’t mean that you’re weak, nor does it make you a bad person. Sometimes, the most advantageous position is, in fact, one in which you don’t resist, in which you don’t explain, in which you don’t try to justify your position, in which you don’t bother trying to help others see your point of view. Or, conversely, in which you don’t try to be inclusive, to give antagonists a forum, or to apologize to diffuse a situation.

In other words, pick your battles, and don’t waste time on people or arguments in which your opponents just want to oppose you rather than work towards a consensus or a productive resolution.  This is exactly what Carol Berkin said to me a few years ago on the subject of doing women’s history.  She said, “I don’t argue any more with people who think women’s history isn’t important or worthwhile.  I just talk to the people who want to hear what I have to say, and ignore the rest.”  This struck me as a very enlightened perspective–it’s not that she’s uninterested in evangelizing about women’s history.  Rather, she’s not going to waste time and energy trying to open minds that are firmly closed.  Does the Southern Poverty Law Center engage in debates with white supremacists and neo-Nazis?  Does Planned Parenthood send an ambassador to the Vatican?  No–what would be the point?  (And in the case of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, it would dignify their dangerous crackpottery by suggesting that racism was a legitimate “other side” to antiracism.)  Dr. Crazy continues:

And also, just because we are women, and in particular women who are intellectuals with academic credentials, it is not our responsibility to opt in and to engage in toxic situations or conversations. While it is true that we may value the free exchange of ideas, spirited debate, a diversity of opinions, etc., that does not mean that we individually are obligated to engage with all ideas, to enter into all debates, or to entertain all opinions. We are not required to get angry and to respond with anger to any and all comers. Particularly if there is no positive way to channel our anger toward a concrete outcome.

In these cases, serving up a slice of old Bartleby, and “prefer[ring] not to” is what’s called for.  Moving along, Lesson for Girls, Number Three:  On Pity wasn’t designated as such by Professor Zero, because she wrote it before my Lesson Number One on Anger and I only read her post later that day.  However I think it’s a very worthwhile addition to our lessons, so I hope she won’t mind my annexation of “On Pity.”  She writes,

 I have found that pity is the first step in the creation of any abusive relationship. As a child, the children we were supposed to play with out of pity were the abusive ones. Because we had been so exhorted to pity these children, we then felt guilty and conflicted about noticing that they were abusive. And so it has always gone.

2.Pity is the first false step. The next ideologeme, also one I was taught early on, was “but they like you.” “I do not want to play with that person, they are mean.” “But they like you, and you should appreciate that. They are probably only mean because they like you and they do not know how to express it in another way. Be kind.”

3. I have heard this at work a great deal, too. “You are stronger, more competent and better published than he is, and he has had a terrible time in life, so put up with it and help him out. It is part of your job to put up with it and help him out.”


His beastliness is NOT your problem!

I have seen this recently among the preschool set–and it’s only girls who are instructed that other people’s bad behavior is their problem to fix.  When these girls grow up and go to therapy, they’ll learn that other people’s behavior is their own responsibility, and that they have no power to change other people’s behavior.  Why not tell them that when they’re 3, 4, and 5–why teach them something that years of expensive therapy will have to undo?  Professor Zero continues, “when I was a child it was manifestly clear that one’s purpose in life was to allow pitiable people to be mean and perhaps manage their meanness to some degree, by helping to tame their demons or even slaying some of them.”  As if!

Like Professor Zero, I’ve seen pity mobilized to excuse bad behavior in adulthood, too.  “You’re younger, prettier, and thinner than she is–she’s very threatened by you.”  “She doesn’t have your social skills–she’s very threatened by you.”  “You don’t understand how intimidating you are to people–invite them out to lunch, get to know them a little bit.”  One by one, I was informed that all of the things that I thought had won me my first tenure-track job–being articulate, confident, and having a clear intellectual and teaching agenda–were presented as reasons my colleagues didn’t like me or were “threatened” by me.  How many young men assistant professors are instructed to be less competent, less confident, and not to tell anyone about their publications or grants won–in short, to deny or hide the qualities for they were hired to function in a professional capacity?  I suppose it happens sometimes, but I’m not the only woman who was essentially instructed not to do my job so well because of other people’s feelings.  No one suggested that if my colleagues had all of these “feelings” that it was their responsibility to get to therapy and work them out.  No–it was the responsibility of the youngest, newest professor in the department not to provoke unsettling “feelings” in her senior colleagues.

So class, to review our “Lessons for Girls:”

  1. Anger
  2. Opting Out
  3. On Pity

What’s next, class?  What lessons do you wish you had learned earlier in life?  (By the way, check out the new page in the top left corner of the homepage, “Lessons for Girls,” where I’ll keep a list of all of the contributions.)

19 thoughts on “Lessons for Girls, numbers two and three: Opting Out, and On Pity

  1. We are not alone.

    See, for example, this blog and others, and from a different field, Isis’ Letters to Our Daughters Project

    So often, we feel isolated or are made to feel isolated. It’s a way of controlling our behavior, where we are rewarded with attention if we suck it up and act right, and punished with isolation when we don’t. There are others in the same boat; you just have to find them!


  2. You make a lot of interesting points here. I have two young daughters, and I try to find a balance in teaching them to be kind but not to put up with crap. They can realize that they have more resources, internal and external, than some people, and at the same time that doesn’t mean they have to put up with bad behaviour. I would like to teach them to have compassion, but not “idiot compassion.”


  3. Oh — I do think I should point out that it isn’t only girls who are taught to put up with and excuse other people’s bad behavior. It’s a dynamic in many emotionally abusive relationships. Men may not be taught it in the same way, but many men do learn this behavior and suffer from it. It’s often coded in different ways, though, so not as recognizable.


  4. I love this series! My father tried to play the pity game, and in learning to resist his attempts to claim my pity, I got some resistance to this particular behavior. But I’m fascinated/appalled by your account of the pre-school set and how girls are asked to be nice to people who are not nice back.

    Pity is part of the “take responsibility for the world being right” that girls are taught.


  5. Susan–I think part of it is that girls are more socially adept at younger ages than some boys seem to be. (This begs the question: why? My guess is that people raise girls with higher expectations about them being responsive to adults, more polite, more focused on other people’s feelings and needs, etc.) But–if a girl doesn’t like playing with someone, then why force it? Especially if another child’s lack of response or negative response makes her feel badly.

    Lilian: I think your approach with your daughters is a good one. Children can be polite, and can politely say, “I don’t want to play with you now. You aren’t being nice to me,” or “That hurts my feelings.”


  6. Thanks, Prof. Zero–I’ll add it to the list above.

    For some reason, I didn’t get a pingback or notice of Undine’s post in my incoming links list–so if anyone else wants to contribute to this list, either let me know in a comment that you’ve put up a post, or shoot me an e-mail. I appreciate that others are engaged in these “lessons for girls,” and want to be sure to have a complete list of lessons here.


  7. Pushing me to interact with kids I disliked was something my mother constantly did and I was constantly frustrated by it. It continued through high school, once pushing me to date a guy I didn’t like much — because “he was really a nice boy” and “he doesn’t have any friends” and “he had a hard time growing up”. The fact that I wasn’t terribly interested in even talking to him, let alone going on a date, was irrelevant. I was never mean to this boy, but I sure wasn’t going to be THAT nice.

    I’ve never bought the whole “be nice to people even when they’re jerks” idea, mostly because I was the nerdy goofy kid who got picked on in grade school and therefore learned quite quickly it was a waste of time being nice back. (A corollary to this lesson might be “don’t be friends with people who are mean to you just because you’re desperate for friends”… something I was not always able to avoid.)


  8. Thank you so much for these posts! They’ve given me some perspective on the last few years.

    One rule I would add to the list, which is related to the others but needs special mention, is to stop apologizing. After reading these posts I realized that I take responsibility for how others react to my success. For some reason, I’ve been apologizing to my colleagues for their feelings. It’s not always a spoken apology, but the thought is there. I’m taking all those apologies back; they take too much energy.


  9. exileinacademia–maybe you should write your own Lesson called “No apologies.” If you do, let me know what you come up with–I think it’s a great idea.

    Correction: I see you already have! And a nice Nirvana reference along the way too–well done. I’ll add yours to the list.


  10. **Sorry–this comment is really far too long. Apparently it struck a nerve–so feel free to skip it if you don’t feel like reading a novella!**

    Thanks immensely for this post. (I lurk on occasion, usually link here through feministlawprofessors.com).

    I’m a young female prof (tt but still a few years away from going up) at a major Catholic university in the midwest (um, yes, *that* university). I’ve been working both with our Gender Studies program and with my home dept. for the past couple of years. And this post made an impact on me. The conversation(s) about gender-related issues on campus (when they’re permitted to take place) are ALWAYS 100% controlled by the “need” to address the men on campus, men’s anxieties about gender, men’s “me, too” or “I have something really profound to say about gender” moments… The list goes on but you get the picture, I’m sure.

    I had a difficult time pedagogically with a seminar I just finished up for the semester (all seniors preparing to graduate) in which I had a number of bright and articulate women, and five men, two of whom were incredibly aggressive and domineering. The dynamic felt to me like a constant struggle for power and authority with these two guys attempting to hijack every discussion. My female students came to me during office hours to tell me that they felt silenced and threatened by these guys and their frequent interruptions, etc. Yet because of the culture of this campus and the insanely backward ways in which gender gets talked about here, they lacked the vocabulary and the confidence to address the issue in class or confront the guys. They needed me to be an advocate for them. Which is exhausting because I fell like it’s all I do sometimes. I felt as though my credentials, my own position as the person whose job it was to channel discussion–was constantly being attacked. It doesn’t help, I imagine, that I’m visibly pregnant, look young, and am the first woman in my department *ever* to have a child pre-tenure.

    Anyhow, the last straw for me came when I was teaching *Mme Bovary.* There’s a “seduction” scene in which Emma, the protagonist, is led into the woods by a man, who then grabs at her arms and wrists, ignores her verbal rejections and expressions of fear, and then eventually “convinces” her to succumb. The two aggressive guys immediately began regaling the class with their reading of this scene: Emma asked for it, she submitted voluntarily, she was performing her romantic fantasies etc. They transitioned in the course of the discussion to the way this scene plays out on campus, with all the girls who behave like Emma, and how confusing it is for guys.

    At that point I just couldn’t take it anymore! I didn’t exactly blow up, but I calmly and firmly shut the conversation down, explained that this was not *about* guys’ feelings, that they needed to examine the language in the text again, and that the rest of the class (about 20 minutes) would be reserved for their classmates to speak, since said classmates had not had a chance to do so. They needed to hone their listening and responding skills,which–I pointed out–are also crucial elements of a civil conversation.

    The result? They totally punished me on my evals (which at my uni *does* play into tenure, though obviously not as much as research) and I am now dealing with one of the guys, who appealed his grade and has accused me of censorship. He also claims that my judgment is impaired by my “feminist lens.”

    I’m seriously over the notion that I need to accommodate, include, or in any way deal justly and fairly with these kinds of people. In fact, one month before I prepare to welcome my new child into the world, I’m slogging through this appeals process and neglecting some edits and research that I really need to finish up before the baby gets here. I don’t know if I can stand to be here any longer, despite the fact that this is supposed to be a “dream” job (top-20, big research account, etc.). And it’s all because I’m tired as hell of moderating my tone, reaching out to those who “disagree”, justifying the presence of any kind of feminist hermeneutics, etc. I think I’m just done. And I think that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be my job and it doesn’t mean I’m mean, nasty or intolerant.


  11. Wow, Lindy–your comment is really difficult to read, not because of its length, though. I sympathize entirely with your sense of marginalization and frustration, even within your own classroom.

    One might wonder why these two men wanted to take a seminar with you, when you’re affiliated with women’s studies and so naturally would engage in a feminist pedagogy. Complaining about your “feminist lens” is pretty weak, when they presumably were volunteers for your course and so must submit to your judgment since you are the faculty member of record for the course.

    I wonder if appealing to hierarchy might work–when I taught at a Catholic university, I found that sometimes I could take refuge in the fact that I was the professor and students were the students. It didn’t always work–in fact, since I had more problems with colleagues than students, it wasn’t a strategy that I could use at all. But there is a Catholic commitment to playing one’s role in a given hierarchy that I’ve noticed. (I have taught at 2 Catholic universities, not just the one.)

    I completely support your decision not to engage with students like the ones you’ve just dealt with. What I’ve found here on my blog is that tolerating commenters who are rude or just trying to stir the pot is a bad idea–they start to think they own the place. (The proverbial inch/mile thingie turns out to be so, so true when it comes to men expecting to dominate women’s bodies, space, and time, whether in RL or on line!) Coming down hard on students who dominate the class or whose demeanor suggests disrespect for you or for their fellow students–for whatever reason–is almost always the right thing to do.


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