A couple weeks ago, my sister and I spent some time nosing through the stacks of a great used bookstore. In the children’s section, she found some lovely early edition Winnie the Pooh books and I picked up Cherry Ames: Country Doctor’s Nurse. On the back cover, Cherry speaks in a cartoon bubble to her readers: “Girls! How would you like a nursing career? I can tell you that the excitement, romance and adventure make my career thrilling, and make my books thrilling, too.” The other books in the series are listed, too. My favorites are Cherry Ames: Department Store Nurse and Cherry Ames: Dude Ranch Nurse. But thoughts on Cherry Ames will have to wait for another blog post. For I also spent some time in the small women’s study section of the store and found a gem: The Assertive Woman.
The Assertive Woman, by Stanlee Phelps and Nancy Austin, was written in 1975 and had reached twelve printings by 1981. The cover, with a shadowy Mona Lisa in the background, proclaims that with “Over 150,000 copies in print” the book is “The ORIGINAL assertiveness book for women.”
I’ve spent some time in the last week perusing the book’s many chapters on topics ranging from “developing assertive behaviors” to “asserting your sensuality” to “from apology to power.” Fascinating and funny stuff. Most of it is organized around four prototypical women: Doris Doormat, Agatha Aggressive, Iris Indirect, and April Assertive. There’s a full table describing the characteristics of each of them. For example, in terms of “social pattern,” Doris puts herself down, Agatha puts herself up by putting others down, Iris appears to put others up while putting them down, and April puts herself up. My favorite row of the table is the bottom one, detailing the potential for each prototype.
- Doris Doormat: Potential for suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse
- Agatha Aggressive: Potential for committing crimes, homicide
- Iris Indirect: Potential for being murdered, provoking retaliation
- April Assertive: Potential for peaceful, active life
Oh my. Being assertive is definitely the way to go.
Then, about a week after my book purchase, I was a member of the graduate committee for a student defending her dissertation, a study of the “Women Don’t Ask” phenomenon. The dissertation defense – appropriately held on Equal Pay Day – involved both replicating oft-cited findings that women are less likely to “ask” for something (for example, a higher initial salary, a raise, or a promotion) and considering the simple question of WHY don’t women ask.
For methodological reasons (study participants were much more interested in extra credit than in the monetary incentive), the experimental replication didn’t go as well as hoped, and very few men OR women asked for a higher payout. However, there were some interesting findings surrounding the question of why. For example, women were more likely than men to say they didn’t ask because they thought it would be rude or inappropriate. And the women who DID ask cited powerful life experiences that highlighted the importance of asking.
Not surprisingly, I found myself comparing all this research on women asking (or not) with The Assertive Woman, blurbed on its back cover as “a practical, no-nonsense guide to getting more out of life.” If we’re still doing research on why women don’t ask, have we really made any progress in the last 40 years?
The first part of my answer is yes, we’ve definitely made progress. For one thing, we talk about these issues a lot when we advocate for women leaning in, bridging the confidence gap, and making their voices heard. I’ve written about these issues many times on this blog – like here, and here, and here.
I also believe we’ve made progress because when we talk about women asking, we understand that this isn’t a problem that can be fixed just by the woman being more assertive. We now recognize that there are complex factors that play into this problem – issues of socialization, of individual bias, and of systemic discrimination. Yes, there are still calls for women to change their communication styles, but we get that the problem is a complex one.
Finally, I see vast progress in the last 40 years in terms of the contexts for being assertive. In 2015, it’s about effectively advocating for an initial salary. It’s about exerting authority in meetings. It’s about establishing a place in STEM majors and careers. It’s about establishing power in government and in boardrooms. These weren’t the examples provided in The Assertive Woman. In 1975, Assertive Amy was asking to get a credit card in her own name after a divorce, she was explaining why dinner wasn’t on the table when a husband came home late, and she was settling disputes between girlfriends.
So yes, times have changed.
But they also haven’t. There are still disparities in pay, in the number of women in many professions, in important government positions, and at the top levels of corporations. There is still an inordinate valuing of masculine ways of communicating (i.e., competitive frames) when we know that feminine approaches (i.e., collaboration) are often much more effective.
And there’s this. In The Assertive Woman, you can take a test to determine your Assertiveness Quotient (AQ). For each question, a respondent can indicate a level of comfort with the assertive behavior. The second item on this AQ test is “commenting about being interrupted by a male directly to him at the moment he interrupts you.” The original owner of the book filled in the blank with a “1” – makes me very uncomfortable.
So that’s another thing that hasn’t changed. For there’s no doubt that mansplaining is alive and well four decades later.