Clearly competent

You don't become a feminist until someone says they hate you

At the beginning of this week, I was 30 years old. Today, on Friday, I am 50.

I’m actually 49 and have been for a few months now, and it’s been interesting to be reminded as I round out the hardest decade of my life, much of that hard stuff being a direct result of my gender, that Americans really, really, really hate competent women. As we watched woman after woman drop out of the presidential race, regardless of your political affiliation or who you’re backing in this election, the picture grew steadily clearer. We were once again going to be led by a man after being led by men since the founding of this country, because the American people, from sea to shining sea, can agree on one thing. America hates women.

And it’s not just men who hate us: the BBC reported today that 90% of people around the world, regardless of their own gender identification and even in countries with women in positions of political leadership, report that they are biased against women. In the case of Elizabeth Warren, as Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic, the problem wasn’t just the usual litany of complaints about powerful women (not likable, doesn’t smile enough, a “know it all”, and “alienating” with a problematic “tone”). It was that Elizabeth Warren is clearly competent.

Competence is an interesting thing for people to find problematic. As COVID sent everyone into a frenzy of concern at the university where I teach, our chancellor (an extremely competent woman, and the first woman to lead Berkeley in its 150 year history) tried to reassure people that the best defense was not to panic. Her messages are reasoned and thoughtful. But she’s regularly derided for the same multiplicity of reasons any woman who’s worked her way up to a powerful position is derided. From Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to Beyonce, from Nancy Pelosi to Rebecca Solnit, from the late Toni Morrison to Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg, the problem is this: they’re too good at what they do. They’re too competent.

On the grading rubric we use for students in our first year writing classes, a B paper is “clearly competent.” To earn an A, essays have to be “excellent.” Much of the time, students are bewildered by this differential, and it is a tricky one, pedagogically. What is the difference between competence and excellence? The competent essay is written by a strong student. They’re usually a hard worker who shows some signs of needing to put in a little bit of extra time to really make their work shine. The excellent essay is written by a student who takes a few risks, pushes their argument further, makes you understand a familiar text in new ways. They are the person who, in other words, puts themselves out there. But as we all learned from Harry Potter, Hermione might be the smartest witch in her class, but nobody really likes her. In fact, there’s a whole page on the Harry Potter fan Wiki called “I Hate Hermione.”

Because I didn’t publish my first book until I was in my mid thirties, and my freelance career didn’t really take off until a decade after that, I was pretty mature by the time people started telling me they hated me on a regular basis. It’s par for the course these days for women who write (and act, and make music, and practice medicine, and ring up customers at Trader Joe’s, and ad infinitum) to be told regularly online that someone hates them. The sin they’ve all committed is the same. They’ve put themselves out there into the world, where their bodies, minds, voices and souls are targets.

You know all of this. I know all of this. But the grinding disappointment many of us feel this week is because we’re being reminded yet again that we will never be good enough. The smartest girl in the room is too smart. The prettiest one is too pretty, and the strongest too strong. But none of them are ever the right one. They will always be lacking, and they will always be hated.

And this is where I think we need to stop complaining and stop waiting around for things to change and instead talk to the men in our lives. Not just about toxic masculinity or why they said they’d vote for a woman and then clearly did not or not just about why even in the most egalitarian heterosexual relationships women are still expected to put men’s needs firsts or why so many magazines we write for don’t have female editors (in 2020!) or why we have to think every time we go somewhere alone about whether or not we are going to be raped. I mean we need to talk to the men we trust, the men we think of as “good.” We know you think you support feminism and we know you care about bringing up your daughters to believe they can be president some day (sigh) and we know you (mostly) think women are worthy of respect.

We need to know what men are going to do.

What are you actually going to do with your platform and privilege and money and time to make a world where a woman can be competent and not be hated?

What are you going to do?