“Some people say that being competitive is acting like a man. I think it’s acting like a person.”

Why are many girls and women unwilling to step into leadership roles? Naomi Wolf interviews Cindy Watters, a female athlete and student body president, for more insight.


In a previous post, we talked about the benefits of androgyny. The androgynous individual allows both their feminine and masculine sides to flourish, and does not suppress either side in order to conform with rigid gender roles.

In line with the theme of androgyny, we draw attention to the way girls and women are raised: to suppress their competitive, bossy impulses, and focus on developing their nurturing and loving side. Yet this is unhealthy because it forces women to deny a very real, human part of themselves: competition. Leadership. The desire for power and the hunger to win.

Naomi Wolf, in her passionately argued book “Fire with Fire”,  argues that competition and leadership are not ‘male’ traits. They are human traits. And everyone would be better off if women stopped trying to downplay this aspect of themselves.

Wolf also argues how sports is a fantastic way of teaching girls to become comfortable with competition, aggression and leadership. Sports helps us to become comfortable with power exchange – both the winning, and the losing.

Excerpt from Naomi Wolf’s 1993 book, “Fire with Fire”:

The Fears of Leadership and Egotism

…The fear of leadership comes from girls’ alliance on the basis of intimacy rather than of goals: “Female adolescent friendships,” Eagle and Colman write, “are not based on going somewhere and doing something so much as they are on sharing thoughts and feelings. Through these friendships, girls learn about what goes on between two people in a fairly intimate setting and how to care about somebody else.” Instead of the impersonal, impartial, and, to some extent, interchangeable experience of teamwork that sports provides boys, little girls are led to direct their competitive and organizational energies towards social cliques.

Difference feminists cast the world of men as relentless one-on-one competition, and the world of women as an egalitarian and mostly nurturing matrix. But men’s team sports can actually be very collaborative and supportive; and women’s cliques can be rife with veiled aggression and competitiveness.

Boys learn, through sports, that you can actually win; they learn what winning feels like. The leaders of sports teams may be resented at first for being picked for the position, but if they lead their team to victory the whole team shares in the triumph. This experience teaches boys to root for leaders who can bring benefits to the whole group, and to identify with the strengths of those who lead wisely. Even when boys are inadequate athletes in real life, they can adopt a sports team and, through passionate identification, “win” again and again.

Girls who do not play team sports learn that “alliance” is not teamwork, but closeness; that “leadership” is not skill but popularity. Thus, girls do not learn from their societies what fairness or victory feels like. Instead, they learn what love feels like. The goal of their social organization is not a trophy; it is inclusion.

In contrast to the ethos of boys’ sports teams, girls’ social organization is profoundly subjective and undemocratic. The “system of government” girls learn in the schoolyard ranges from a “popularity oligarchy’ to an Evita-type cult of personality that is, at best, a benign dictatorship.

Unlike boys’ athletic leaders, whose achievement can be measured objectively and whose prominence can be grudgingly accepted by less athletic boys as being “just” physical, leaders of girls’ groups reign on the unmerited basis of charisma, looks, clothes, popularity: that is, on the basis of a rudimentary celebrity. Girls learn that leadership is subjective, shaky, undeserved, and personal. They have little sense that a good leader can bring the whole group triumph and cohesiveness. The aura of celebrity cannot be abstracted into a workable rule of social organization that applies fairly to everyone. Indeed, resentment of leadership and of others’ excelling is built into girls’ social structure.

[…]

Competition and conflict between girls is subverted into social or verbal power plays, and women grow up without a clean vocabulary with which to claim those natural feelings. When women do play sports and their aggression and competitiveness are safely framed, those “unfeminine” feelings surface again effortlessly. It is no accident that the burgeoning culture of female athleticism set the stage for the current renewal of a language of female empowerment.

Cindy Watters’ mother is an elementary school teacher; her father is a sales rep. At twenty-two, she is the student body president at Yakima University, having won the election against three men. A basketball player, she believes that her sports activities taught her how to claim her power:

CINDY: Athletics gave me opportunities to learn how to be a leader. It was just girls I was competing with. You could test new ideas. It gave you confidence because it was a skill you knew you could do. Athletics is one of the best things to happen to women. You learn it’s okay to win, to compete. You’re competing against yourself. You see results when you work for it. You develop a new enthusiasm for challenges because you overcome so much.

I think it’s healthy for girls to compete openly. It’s not underground. The competition between women [who are not involved in athletics] gets repressed; it gets redirected to social things. You compete with other girls with how you look, who’s the thinnest. Instead of your skills and abilities, it’s your physique, your makeup, your clothes, do you have a boyfriend.

NAOMI WOLF: Some people say that being competitive is acting like a man.

CINDY: I think it’s acting like a person. Humans innately are competitive. You don’t like to lose. Women may compete differently – but it doesn’t turn you into a man; it turns you into a whole person who can be part of any society.

I definitely think athletics prepared me for leadership. When I coach I say, “You’re not just doing this to be good at a sport. This helps you be a woman in society.” Let’s face it: You’ll never make money as a woman in this society from being an athlete. But you can make money from what you learn in athletics: how to compete, be a leader, be part of a team. You learn to lose and bounce back, to be an underdog and work hard. You develop a definite work ethic and that’s because it’s fair. The playing field is leveled by talent and hard work. That makes winning okay. It’s okay to win because you’ve said, “I worked hard and, damn it, I earned it!” People can’t take [the victory] away from you.

NAOMI WOLF: Do you think it’s important for women to learn not to take defeat personally?

CINDY: I think it’s hard sometimes not to take it personally. The emotional part is part of being a woman. But you learn that if you lose, it’s not the end of the world. And there’s always hope. There’s always another game, another opportunity.

You learn you can’t focus on losing. If you do, you’ll never win. But you can learn from losing.

You can go out and think, “I know how to win. I know how to be part of a team.” So when you go for a job, you think, “I know how to compete and win. I’ve done it and I’ve put myself on the line and I know how to do that.”

But few young girls have Cindy Watters’s experience, and victim feminism’s discomfort with “patriarchal” qualities leaves little room for girls’ own competitiveness, aggression, and autonomous “quest” narratives. This ambivalence about competitiveness and separation – which has heavily influenced progressive educational theory – risks creating an educational environment in which girls get only half of what they need – the nurturing half. It can also undermine the self-esteem that comes to girls from achieving a hard (hierarchical) goal, like winning a game or debate. Some kinds of hierarchies – like hierarchies based on experience, wisdom, and skill – are okay; some kinds of leadership – like leadership that absorbs and focuses others’ light for their own benefit – are fine; some kinds of struggle – like the struggle for justice – can demand an adversarial mood. Victim feminism has thrown out some potent, potentially constructive tools of power instead of redefining them.

Wolf, Naomi. Fire with fire: New female power and how it will change the twenty-first century. Random House, 2013.

Naomi R. Wolf (born November 12, 1962) is an American author, journalist and former political advisor to Al Gore and Bill Clinton. She first came to prominence in 1991 as the author of The Beauty Myth. With the book, she became a leading spokeswoman of what was later described as the third wave of the feminist movement. As a journalist, she has written about topics such as abortion, the Occupy Wall Street movement, Edward Snowden and ISIS. She has written in venues such as The Nation, The Guardian and The Huffington Post.

Featured Image: wisdomschoice

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