Nell Irvin Painter


Miscellaneous Writings:
Dissent and Intimidation.
Unpublished. 1 April 1991.

Dissent and Intimidation
Unpublished Column
By Nell Irvin Painter
April 1, 1991

Last winter in North Carolina I had a bizarre experience. It began in a symposium on the southern writer Wilbur J. Cash at which I gave a paper critical of the book Cash published fifty years ago. That I would see the South differently from Wilbur Cash is not surprising: Cash was born in North Carolina in 1900, believed in segregation, and held fairly conventional views about southerners who were black and/or female. I am a feminist who is a black woman.

My paper and its initial reception were not odd. The weird part came a week later, when one southern journalist took me to pieces. He criticized me for posturing and called me the Aretha Franklin of the academic world. Without reporting what I had said that struck him as so wrong, he exposed a couple of awful truths about me: When I sat in the audience, I knitted, and before I went in front of the television camera, I applied makeup. The journalist decried my worthiness as a historian because I was doing the kind of things that a girlfriend would do.

Since then I've been trying to figure out the relation between my criticism of a popular southern author and the activities of the journalist's girlfriend. Somehow it all reminded me of the long ago admonitions of my old friend Alonzo.

For years Alonzo would call me up annually to talk things over. This conversation would let us catch up the meaning of life. There would be news of my family and his family, of his work and my work, of our mutual friends, of all our plans and dreams.

Eventually we'd get around to our love lives. Alonzo and I are about the same age, which means that we were already getting on. Back then, Alonzo had never been married, and I worried about his social life in a small college town in which all the available women were less than half his age. He was dating much younger women, which concerned us both, but not in the same way.

For Alonzo the problems were cosmetic: Though he was still in good physical shape and swore he was passing for a man in his early 30s (wishful thinking, no doubt), the multiplying of his gray hairs was driving him to distraction. Every morning he'd pull the gray out of his beard, which was consuming more and more time daily. But no, he wasn't unduly distressed by the fact that he was keeping company with women young enough to be his daughters, which was what bothered me. He thought that young women were just fine as mates. I thought he needed someone more his equal, someone to enrich their companionship with the experience of her maturity.

For his part, Alonzo naturally worried about my marital status: I had been married at twenty-two but had been divorced for what seemed like forever. I had love affairs that struck my friend as futile. Alonzo would hear about the latest man who didn't quite suit, then he'd sigh: "You know, Nell, the trouble with you is that you intimidate men."

I have heard this before, over the span of a good quarter of a century. Ever since I was an undergraduate I had been hearing that I intimidate men. What was it that was wrong about me? Was I too well-educated? too black? too tall? too healthy? too outspoken? For years I would turn these possibilities over in my mind, trying to find which one I should fix. Women, even feminists, will do a lot to themselves for men. But I couldn't figure out what needed to be altered.

Then I had a conversation with Denise, who at 4' 11" and 95 lbs. is shorter, thinner, lighter-skinned, and younger than me. One evening at dinner Denise confessed that she was getting tired of hearing that she intimidates men. Amazing. A woman who from a distance might be mistaken for a child. And she intimidates men?

At a meeting in Atlanta a few years later I found out it wasn't just Denise and me. I was talking to a room full of women. Seventy-five or a hundred women were in that room, women of all ages, races, and levels of education. Their interest in women's studies brought them together, yet they were otherwise a diverse group.

At one point in a discussion of perception and self-perception, I asked who in the audience had been told she intimidates men. Practically every woman in the room raised her hand. The women looked about at each other and gasped.

Each had accepted intimidating men as her own individual shortcoming; each had been trying to puzzle out whether she was too short or too round or too light or too loud. How could so many women so different be in the same quandary? Over the course of time, the Beatles and that journalist in North Carolina and my old friend Alonzo gave me and all those women an answer.

Do you remember that great Beatles' single, "We Can Work it Out"? Here the Beatles speak as a fellow who's having trouble with his girlfriend. He wonders why she insists on seeing things "your way" and asks her to try to see things "my way." If she would just change her habits and see things "my way," then they could continue to be a couple: "we can work it out." But not if she holds to her own opinions. If she still sees things her way, there can be only one outcome--"There's a chance that we might fall apart before too long."

Come to think of it, the Beatles' complaint was part of my friend Alonzo's lack of attraction to women his age, although after he married a woman twenty-five years younger, he never would have put it into so many words. If Alonzo didn't say it, I have heard other men express these thoughts. They preferred younger women, who would see things their way, as the Beatles would say, while women who had been around for awhile knew and voiced their own feelings more exactly.

Yes, I admit it; I have a long history of seeing things in my own way and of saying what I think. As the Beatles' might have noted, I have an old tendency to see things my way. For some people this is a very bad habit. The southern journalist's outburst indicates that my words, uttered in public, reminded him less of scholarly dissent than of a domestic altercation.

The journalist went to extremes with my knitting and my makeup, but he did point to a notion that exists in a wider consciousness: It does make a big difference whether the person who disagrees is a woman. When women speak in opposition--when women see things their own way and say so--it's no longer seen as dissent, but as intimidation.

If my suspicion is at all founded and the Beatles got it right in the 1960s, then working it out is going to be harder than we thought. A hint of the difficulty comes from people who are complaining about "political correctness" (their term, not mine). They summon up visions of overweening power in the hands of feminists and their allies. The vocabulary is of intimidation, not differing points of view, with the threat that we'll never work it out unless the feminists et al come to see things "my way." Speaking for myself, I fear I'm too deep in my rut to change my tune. At the same time, I do wish that we could step out of the family circle when we converse in public and distinguish dissent from intimidation.

Nell Irvin Painter is writing a biography of the feminist abolitionist Sojourner Truth.

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