On the dangers of being nice when you are a woman

So as a feminist scholar and a leader, I routinely hear a lot of whining about how “women aren’t very good mentors” and “older women are so…catty” to young women. This is stated at me, like ha! “I met a mean woman once and that proves that women can’t be leaders.”

It’s hard to know how to respond to this nonsense. For one thing, there are so few senior women at my university that if they mentored everybody who wanted their time, they would do nothing else. For another, being nice or nurturing has real consequences for women. Patricia Hill Collins talks about the central, undermining tropes of black women: the hoochie mamma and the mammy and the welfare queen. The mammy presents a real problem for women of color in the academy, as people assume that they are entitled to black womens’ time and nurturing. What else would a mammy do but put the needs of the white baby before her own needs?

The same problems plague white women to differing degrees. The mommy imagery means that any signs of nurturing or niceness you show will come back to bite you as people see that as weakness they can exploit.

To wit.

A couple weeks ago, I gave a paper in our research seminar. Our media people had been taping all the faculty presentations up to that point, but they didn’t show to tape me. I asked him, and he responded that “Oh, we’re only taping the premier faculty.” I arched an eyebrow. Oh, really. I challenged him on that, and noted that I actually outranked a number of the people who had been selected to represent the school, and I have tenure. He recognized the hole he was in and said “oh, I didn’t realize. I was only told about the other faculty who were speaking….the list I got of premier faculty didn’t include you…”

One as to wonder why, exactly, I am not on the list of premier faculty…