Regarding “intimidating” women

While writing my novel Daisy, I had an unpleasant experience with a man, the leader of an organization of which my husband and I were members. He thought it perfectly okay to inform me, as we disagreed over an approach to a program, that others found me “intimidating,” even “aggressive” and “pushy.”

He used “demure” to describe another woman, clearly implying that was the type he found admirable, obviously unaware of how that compliment is outdated, with its implication that women should be shy and quiet (staying in their place?).

Needless to say, we are no longer members of that organization, but his language in describing me, whether his own or ascribed to others, is depressingly familiar to many women.

I don’t consider myself aggressive or pushy or intimidating. I do try to be assertive, thorough, and intelligent. But many women, I suspect, have faced the negative descriptions mentioned above rather than the positive ones.

For example, a woman I know who worked in government for many years saw “aggressive” used on her evaluation sheets, but she was merely…well, assertive, thorough, and not just intelligent but Mensa-level smart. Similarly, a high-ranking woman to whom I related my tale of being described in those unflattering terms nodded her head in agreement and said she, too, had been called those things throughout her life. Yet she is a wise leader of both men and women, widely respected in her field and beyond.

Over at the Family Proof blog, I found a wonderful set of interviews with seven women discussing “what it means to be intimidating.” This response from Sara Baker, a PR pro, really resonated with me:

“…being intimidating as a woman is often thought of as a negative. It’s associated with being aggressive (as opposed to assertive), bossy (as opposed to direct) and intense (as opposed to firm). But why? Why does society place negativity on women knowing who they are and what they want? Men are not often deemed intimidating when they are assertive and direct, yet women ‘shouldn’t’ act that way…”

Sara Baker

From that same piece, I found Hailey Harmon’s response a head-nodder, as well, because it is the opposite of the “demure” label – women who are willing to speak up and speak out in many different settings:

“Intimidating is a word to describe women of being complex, outspoken, and strong willed. Intimidating can be many things, but for me, it means they’ve put themselves out there and aren’t afraid to speak their mind. To be frank, the people that say women are ‘intimidating’ seem to be living a few decades in the past.”

Hailey Harmon, founder of Aitch Aitch

So, when I wrote Daisy, a retelling of The Great Gatsby from Daisy Buchanan’s point of view, I thought of how her playing the “little fool” might have been her way of avoiding the “intimidating, aggressive” label. It allowed her to speak out. Women who use clever bon mots and witty lines to disguise their sharp intelligence and assertiveness, after all, are admired.

Several times in Daisy, I come back to this theme, of Daisy Buchanan having to hide her true self in order to fit into that “demure” box the men in her life have constructed for her and other women. In a scene where I have her husband, Tom, teaching her to sail, she has the nerve to suggest they might do things differently in order to achieve more speed:

“No one likes a pushy woman, you know,” he said after straightening out our course. I bit my tongue to keep from pointing out he had done what I’d suggested. Men didn’t like women who were right. I’d learned that early in our marriage, too. During a similar discussion a week or so ago, Tom had excessively squeezed my hand, bruising my finger. I was being too aggressive, he thought, by suggesting after dinner that maybe the white man wasn’t in danger of being oppressed.

From Daisy by Libby Sternberg

(In my own life, my husband has been both supporter and champion of my points of view, especially of my writing career.)

Later in the novel, Daisy herself realizes, though, that she has been complicit in keeping herself in that box, by not being her genuine self:

All the things I’d wanted from life I had gotten by playing that porcelain figurine. I’d bent in that same charming way toward men. I had lidded my eyes, bitten my tongue, looked shyly away, come up with clever lines, ceased being in any way intimidating. All so they’d love me.

From Daisy by Libby Sternberg

Just as in real life, Daisy, like many women, has to choose whether to be demure or all those negative things (mostly) men say about women they can’t easily control. Writing her character proved to be cathartic for me after my unpleasant experience. It helped me explore how women deal with men who revert to stereotyping when confronted with women who disagree. I hope the novel has other women nodding their heads to Daisy’s journey.

Daisy is available digitally in July and in print in September.

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