TCFW: Feminism – the right to say ‘no’ in all contexts

The title of this THATCamp Feminisms wrap up post is an approximation of my favorite quote from TCFW’s events (there was too much good that came from the event for a single post, so there will be a series). Several of us were in a session on Feminist Collaboration and Adrianne Wadewitz reminded us that in so far as feminism is about empowering women, it is about supporting our right to say ‘no’ not just in sexual encounters, but in all kinds of contexts. In this particular context, this might mean saying ‘no’ to an excessive service load, to being the sole representative for gender/sexuality issues on campus, to being the one who does everything. It was the third reminder I’d had that week to say ‘no’ and it was the one that finally stuck. Why? Because it helpfully recast what I was seeing as myriad “Important Opportunities/Needs” as compulsory forces.

Let me take a moment to parse that statement. I look around and see a lot of work to be done, a lot of work on behalf of gender, race, class, and sexuality equality. I see a lot of need and a lot of opportunity to effect change at local, national, and international levels. In those needs I see a great deal of opportunity for change and I want to help bring about that change. THATCamp Feminisms arose because of a set of conversations that were happening virtually that deserved our more concentrated efforts and in person meetings. I saw a need and moved to address it. That’s great, but I see need everywhere these days and even when I limit my scope to the areas where I have the most interest/talent/training it’s still more than I can tackle. The needs here on campus are enough to exhaust a single person.

When colleagues suggested to me that it was critical to my career and well-being that I say ‘no’ more often, I understood what they were saying. I see the ways that one needs to navigate a career, choose her battles, and protect the room to get scholarship done. But I also have strong passions and those passions are what feed my work, and I think that this is a good approach to work – I have to care about what I’m doing if I’m going to really do it well – and I felt passionate about the opportunities that I was seeing everywhere. So the “say no, Jacque” exhortation often felt like a suggestion to squash what makes my work vital and interesting in order to survive; it felt like rejecting opportunities in which I was invested or turning away from those to whom I feel responsible (like my students).

What Adrianne’s observation helped me to see, with startling clarity and speed, is that there are other ways to see the situation. It’s not that I need to give up on the things I care about or am committed to; it’s that the system is designed to make me feel that I should be responsible for all of this work, that ‘yes’ is the only acceptable answer when faced with the next Important Thing. It may not have been Adrianne’s intent, but the form of her comment activated a metaphor: suddenly all of this opportunity to address need was recast as a threatening sexual need, a set of uninvited advances. The beauty of the metaphor is how quickly it clarified things for me. For example, my chosen position as an academic woman was no more invitation to be responsible for all of this mess than a short skirt might have been an invitation to rape.

This isn’t a new insight and I certainly have enough training to know this, but I didn’t feel it. I don’t think I’m alone in this either. The TCFW conversation found it’s way into a conversation with a group of women who are all faculty at Harvey Mudd, our science and engineering school in the consortium. Women were sharing their experiences being told as junior faculty to “say ‘yes’ to everything” to think of invitations as welcome “validations” and a colleague’s rejoinder to make ‘no’ the default was quickly cited. The conversation then turned to how hard that advice is to follow. A friend then cited our colleague’s advice to “fuck the guilt” and I think this is part of why the rape metaphor – a powerful and risky metaphor to be sure – works for me. When work is cast as addressing need or taking advantage of special opportunity, it’s easy to feel guilty. When those “important” or “validating” opportunities or “urgent” needs  are cast as an uninvited compulsory force, I don’t even entertain the possibility of feeling guilty.

The power of the metaphor –  cultural or professional Need/Opportunity as pushy date – is that it let me feel the threat. Suddenly ‘no’ was not a rejection of opportunity or need, but the articulation of my own right to not be responsible for fixing everything and to pursue my work. Saying ‘no’ isn’t a rejection of opportunities or an expression of ingratitude because I have the right to work on the issues/texts/objects that I think are important *without becoming responsible for fixing an entire system of inequity.* Do I acknowledge my own privileges and responsibilities? Yes. Does my work engage with colleagues and students in ways that seek to address inequity? Yes. Do I need to feel compelled to “take advantage” of every “opportunity” that comes my way? No. Is it ok to say ‘no’ *for any reason*? Yes.

Now, even as I write the above I find myself uncomfortable. There are opportunities that I want to take advantage of and that I feel indebted to others for creating – not all needs and opportunities are like sleazy date who won’t take no for an answer. Not all opportunity is opportunistic. I also understand the violence of a metaphor of compulsory sexual force and I use it with seriousness – I think the sense of professional and personal threat that some women experience in those moments when they say ‘no’ warrant the metaphor. For me, as a corrective to my sense that saying ‘no’ was closing doors, shutting down possibilities, and turning away from serious needs, thinking about feminism as the right to say ‘no’ in all contexts is incredibly empowering.

3 Comments

  1. This really resonated with me; thank you for courageously writing it. To me, one of the main contributions of feminism has always been that it allows us to identify oppressive social structures (often but not always sorted by gender and sexuality) and helps us act to transform them. Even finding a metaphor that works to help illuminate an aspect of the oppressive structure is, in my mind, time well spent.

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