“I wish that I could be more helpful,” she said.
Blasey, a remarkably brave woman who agreed to be grilled in front of the entire nation about her greatest trauma ― an attempted rape she says was perpetrated by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when they were both in high school ― wished that she could be more helpful.
Throughout her four-hour testimony, Blasey’s sincere desire to accommodate those around her was made clear in the words she used. She apologized for misspeaking, even about small details like visiting her family in Delaware, not D.C. She reiterated to the committee that her motivation in coming forward was “to be helpful,” that she was used to being “collegial.”
The research psychologist repeatedly thanked Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) for allowing her to be there and double checked that her allotted break times worked for him. At one point, she told him that she would have been “happy to host” him in her home state of California.
For countless women watching Blasey, these gestures struck a chord. Every knee-jerk “thank you” and “I’m sorry” felt like words so many had uttered before, part of a familiar display of courtesy we’d all performed at some point ― out of sheer necessity. Out of a desire to make other people, not ourselves, feel comfortable at all costs.
Over the course of those four hours, Blasey didn’t yell. She didn’t betray an ounce of rage, even though she had every right to be very, very, very angry. She told the Senate Judiciary Committee that her decision to come forward publicly meant that her “greatest fears have been realized.”
And yet she did not interrupt anyone during the hearing. She laughed at Grassley’s bad jokes about coffee. She was kind and respectful to the senators who questioned her.
That’s because Blasey, a longtime academic and human woman on Earth, knows what it costs women to deviate from being pleasant and cooperative. If you are a woman who hopes to be taken seriously in a world where women are still fighting to be taken seriously, to be considered reliable narrators of their own traumas, you have to modulate your behavior to accommodate those in power ― in this case, and in most cases, white men in power.
So many women are conditioned to present in public the way that Blasey did: courteous, calm and vulnerable. It’s “routinized,” as Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of You’re the Only One I Can Tell, put it.
“It’s all part of the self-presentation of being self-effacing and considerate and helpful,” she explained. “Those are characteristics that are expected of women. And women who don’t show those characteristics will be judged negatively. Unhappiness and suffering and pain are emotions that are acceptable in women. Anger is an emotion that’s not.”
From an early age, girls learn that authority figures will reward them for being amenable and punish them for being “too” assertive. Studies have shown that girls and women apologize far more than boys and men do, that girls are more likely than boys to be praised for “being good.” They learn, as Soraya Chemaly wrote in her new book exploring female anger, Rage Becomes Her, to smile as a way to “sooth the people around [them], a facial adaptation to the expectation that we put others first, preserve social connections, and hide our disappointment, frustration, anger, or fear.”
This sentiment was echoed by Tannen. “Girls learn very early on that they get bad responses if they are not self-effacing, apologetic, ‘oh, little old me,’” she said.
Not only are girls rewarded for their accommodating tone and behavior, but they are also taught that this kind of comportment might literally stave off violence. They learn to be constantly vigilant about their environments and potential threats in those environments, and to adjust their behavior accordingly. For many grown women, they learn to prioritize the comfort of men as a result, especially powerful men.
“We are so busy teaching girls to be likable,” wrote Chemaly, “that we often forget to teach them, as we do boys, that they should be respected.”
Unlike women, men can yell their way to respect. Their anger is viewed as powerful, no matter how misdirected or unhinged it is. In stark contrast to Blasey’s steady testimony, Kavanaugh came out with metaphorical guns blazing. He yelled. He interrupted. He talked back to Democratic senators, even asking Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) whether she drank to the point of memory loss.
If Blasey’s comportment had mirrored Kavanaugh’s, “she would have been excoriated,” said Tannen. “She would have been seen as a Valkyrie. She had to be composed. Everything about her was pulling in on herself. Everything about him was expansive and explosive.”
For too many of the thousands of American women watching today’s hearing, this contrast felt uncomfortably familiar. To see this dynamic ― her contained politeness, his blazing rage ― play out on the national stage, when the stakes are so high, was nothing short of excruciatingly painful.
Women have spent millennia being polite, even in the face of overwhelming pain and trauma. So many women have spent their lives trying to figure out the right way to behave in order to be taken seriously. The right way to be forceful without being disliked. The right way to protect themselves in a world that often shows how little they are valued.
Politeness, on its face, can be a good thing. Expecting at least the performance of kindness between fellow citizens seems like a no-brainer. But when only one gender is expected to act accordingly, when men are bound by no such conventions and face no consequences for violating norms, women’s politeness is essentially weaponized against them.