We have a group of young women in eighth grade right now who might be some of the strongest leaders we've had in the eleven years I've been teaching. Many are highly motivated, outspoken, and confident. I love it.
But I've heard time and again from many people that they worry about these girls not being nice enough, or that their confidence is often intimidating to others in class.
*Cue the dominant female version of a Hulk transformation when I hear the words "nice" and "intimidating" in reference to women.*
I admit that this freak out is 100% completely personal. I have been called a lot of things in life due to my strong personality and lack of desire to adhere to norms of social behavior.
Because, you see, I am a woman, and I am not nice.
I am frequently kind, caring, and nurturing. I am honest and opinionated and intelligent. I am confident, motivated, and competent. I am a million things to many different people, but I could probably count on one hand the number of times the word nice has been used as a way to describe me.
Not being nice is not the same as being mean. You can be a person who is not nice and not be a horrible human being, just like you can be a person who appears nice and actually be a monster. I prefer to set nice aside and allow people to see me for all of the things that I really am instead of easing them in with a pleasant facade. I don't think nice people are fake; I just wonder what part of themselves they are hiding.
So for all of these reasons and more, it bothers me when we have conversations about whether or not young women are nice enough.
I have never held a discussion with another teacher about concern over whether a boy was nice enough, or whether his confidence might be intimidating to others. With boys, our discussions tend to center around how to encourage them to show positive leadership. But with strong young women, time and again, it goes back to being nice.
This is not just an issue in one discussion, in one classroom, in one school. This is a societal issue. We don’t know what to do with women who don’t act nice. We don’t know what to do with women who by their very nature and personalities intimidate those with less confidence. We don’t know what to do with strong women, especially when they are first developing that strength. So to avoid the discomfort of encountering women who are not nice, when they are girls, we try to change them.
Be nice, so others aren’t intimidated by your strength and confidence. Others’ lack of confidence is your problem. It’s too hard for them to grow more, so you have to be less.
Be nice, so others won’t feel uncomfortable. Good women put others’ needs ahead of their own. Always.
Be nice, so people will like you. Being liked is necessary for women to be successful in a way that it isn’t for men.
Be nice, so other people don’t feel less than you. You can’t be too much for other people. You can’t be too strong. You can’t be too loud. You can’t be too confident.
Strong women do not need to be fixed.
I don’t want this to sound like the same argument as the “bossy” situation. I draw a clear distinction between showing leadership and being bossy. Just because someone is bossy and tells others what to do does not make that person a leader, and I think Sheryl Sandberg’s blanket crusade that girls shouldn’t be called “bossy” discounts that some people are just tyrants without showing any real leadership skills.
I do not want to ban the word nice or stop people from being nice. I just want us to stop thinking that women need to be forced to be nice. Niceness should be a personal choice, not a standard for all women and girls to adhere to. Choosing to be kind is a good thing. Telling someone they need to be nice is not.
We need to encourage all young people to find their voices and share them, regardless of gender. We need to make sure that the words we use to build confidence in young men are the same words we use with young women. We need to put more emphasis on being kind to one another than we do on simply going through the act of being agreeable. We need to make the same demands for both genders at all ages if we are ever going to approach gender equality.
For me, this starts with defending a young woman’s right to not be nice.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.