What Kirsten Gillibrand Got Wrong About Women and Likability

What Women Really Think
Jan. 20 2014 10:06 AM

What Kirsten Gillibrand Got Wrong About Women and Likability

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand struck a bewildering note at the Shriver Report summit on women and poverty last week. As the Atlantic’s Emma Green reports, Gillibrand fielded a question from a man in the audience about women who “hold themselves back with the way they present themselves to others” by illumining what she felt to be female “nature.”

"This issue of likability. For a lot of young women, they want to be well-liked. If they’re too aggressive, or too pushy, or too declarative, they won’t be well-liked," she said. 
But Gillibrand also encouraged young women to be more aggressive: "To meet those standards, you have to speak less like a young girl and more like a young, aspiring professional."
Then she repeated an interesting word choice: nature.  
"It’s part of our nature. It's not a bad part of our nature. [But] it’s a choice every young woman is going to have to make about how she wants to be and how she wants to be received."

A curtain of skin cells fell softly over the land as a bunch of women simultaneously scratched their heads. Some guy asks Gillibrand about ladies who sabotage themselves by adopting feminine mannerisms and, instead of slamming a broader culture that looks down on feminine mannerisms, she accepts his premise? And says that women alone are afflicted with a damning desire to be liked?

You could sum up much of the cultural conversation of the past few months by repeating Gillibrand’s phrase: “This issue of likability.” The question feels so multifaceted, subjective, and context-dependent that it’s hard to get a handle on it. But the problem with painting likability as a peculiarly feminine concern seems twofold. First, everyone wants to be liked (or almost everyone: Some humans apparently feed on ire like those microbes that live in lava). Second, studies show that what people “like” often turns out to be conformity to gender roles. As Marianne Cooper observes in the Harvard Business Review, “High-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success— and specifically the behaviors that created that success—violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave.” 

In other words, Gillibrand shouldn’t focus on women's wish—innate or learned—to be liked; she should point out that the things women must do in order to attain likability are sometimes self-abnegating (because femininity can still mean tractability and softness). She should decry the vicious cycle by which some women pursue social approval by acting meek, and then are penalized for adopting behaviors associated with women, the less powerful and respected sex. It’s as if the culture were telling us we only looked attractive in a frock called “niceness”—but applied a scarlet W to the thing the moment we bought it, simply because we bought it. Not fair.

And yet—to embroider this metaphor further—femininity itself has withdrawn to the changing room. Womanhood is trying on all kinds of new clothes! As we infiltrate unfamiliar industries and spheres, perhaps the ideal of the docile, unaggressive lady is morphing, so that questing after likability will soon be less of a burden. In the Cut, Ann Friedman challenged the binary between success and social approval: “I refuse to accept the fact that my options are to be a successful bitch or a well-liked failure,” she wrote. “You can be successful without shutting down your emotions and ignore all external feedback. You can be liked without being a doormat. And it’s okay to want it both ways.”

It is more than OK; it is an indicator of progress. Now let’s get the women of the U.S. Senate onboard.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 


Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.