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Kirsten Gillibrand Warns Women Against Following Their 'Nature'

Illustration for article titled Kirsten Gillibrand Warns Women Against Following Their Nature

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, badass champion of women's rights as she is on the Senate floor, is often asked to dispense advice to woman when she's not on the Senate floor. Her most recent tidbit of impromptu advice, though, was a little... confusing.


During the recent Shriver Report summit, Gillibrand was asked, by a man in attendance, if women in business and politics hold themselves back by acting all womanish. Gillibrand responded,

The interesting thing about women is that we are often collaborative in nature," Gillibrand said. "We generally prefer to be well-liked, and we like for people around us to be happy. These are some skills we learn being mothers and daughters: We feed everyone at the table, try to make everyone happy ...


At this point, per The Atlantic, Gillibrand was interrupted by a male journalist who was like OMG What are you talking about? But then Gillibrand went on:

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.

[...] To meet those standards, you have to speak less like a young girl and more like a young, aspiring professional.

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.

To echo Slate's Katy Waldman: Wha?

Do women "naturally" want people to like them, or are women simply taught that the only way to navigate existing power structures is to kiss up to the people in charge until they're deemed too nice to advance any further? Is playing into the patriarchal bait-and-switch a natural thing that women do? What's with the "feeding everyone at the table" business? Is it possible that a Senator speaking extemporaneously worded something less carefully in speech than she would have in writing?


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Gillibrand is the absolute shit, and I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. In a quick sound bite, she's not going to give us a footnoted essay on socialization, patriarchy and structural inequality. I think she's just trying to say that it's easier as a woman to try to make nice and smooth feathers, because that's what we're told "nice girls" do, but we have to fight against that instinct (instinct not as an actual "cows lay down before it rains" instinct, but as a deeply ingrained and common characteristic we may not even consciously realize we have) if we want to be heard. Which I assume is her experience. Is it easy to follow her advice? Definitely not, and we could write several PhD-level theses on why women don't speak up, or are even socially punished for it. But that doesn't invalidate her experience or advice overall.