assertiveness as a subversive act

by mraynes

cross posted at doves and serpents

the most subversive, revolutionary act in this world is to speak the truth. this is especially so for women. speaking one’s truth is an act of courage requiring a level of assertiveness that may or may not be in a woman’s possession. patriarchal cultures have traditionally frowned upon assertiveness in women, training their daughters instead to exist for those around them rather than for themselves. the consequences of trained passiveness don’t need explanation; suffice it to say that such a practice harms women in body, mind and soul.

i counseled victims of intimate partner violence for many years and saw firsthand the results of women trained to be passive and submissive. the damage done to women and children affected by this evil is unspeakable.  as part of my counseling, i offered my clients an assertiveness training course. here we would learn what assertiveness is and how it differs from passiveness and aggression—a concept that is a revelation for many women. i taught my clients how to use “I” language and how to communicate in an ethical way. and then we would practice . . . and practice . . . and practice . . .

Being assertive is uncomfortable, especially if one has been socialized to put others’ needs before their own. One of the most exciting aspects of my job was to witness my clients practice and successfully exhibit assertiveness. It didn’t end domestic violence—it didn’t even make them statistically less likely to be abused in the future—but I knew that even small acts of assertiveness would be important moments in their lives. Maybe it didn’t change the world but for that individual woman, it was world-changing.

This concept is easily applied outside of the domestic violence movement. Women in the Mormon Church also belong to a patriarchal culture where they have very little institutional power. We women are taught from toddlerhood that we are to be wives and mothers and devote ourselves fully to our families. It is easy to see how some women can interpret this socialization to believe that their personal feelings or needs are irrelevant. The passivity and passive-aggression that is so prevalent among Mormon women is a tragedy and cannot be what God wants for their daughters.

LDS women must tell their stories. A majority of these stories are positive but there are also stories that tell of the hurt that our institutional practices and culture create. All deserve to be told. All deserve to be heard. Those in power in this church—men—must begin to know what it feels like to be a Mormon woman. They must hear what it feels like to only have the role of wife and mother presented to you. They must be made aware of the experience of divorced, single and/or childless Mormon women, what that feels like and how lonely and painful it can be. They should hear the joy that we feel in being Disciples of Christ, in serving others and being served. We should tell them about the love we have for our sisters and brothers and the untapped power and goodness that could come if only we were allowed to access it fully. We must speak our truth powerfully, being respectful but absolutely confident in the validity of our experiences and feelings.

Maybe the stories we have to tell as Mormon women won’t change the broader church, but there is no doubt that they affect those around us. Maybe a bishop becomes more sensitive about the representation of women on his council. Maybe the gospel doctrine teacher makes the language of the scriptures gender inclusive. Maybe a greater sense of unity, of mourning with those who mourn and rejoicing with those who rejoice is developed in a ward. Providing a woman the knowledge of how to be assertive and then the opportunity to exercise that assertiveness can be church-changing, if only for that one woman.

As an advocate for women in and outside the Mormon Church, I have felt that oftentimes our focus is too broad, too grand. We dream of seeing the end of violence against women or equality of opportunities between the genders. To be sure, these are worthwhile goals but they can also become overwhelming and disheartening when it seems that year after year we are no closer to meeting them. So instead of focusing on those larger goals, I make it a point to model assertiveness in my own life and let each woman that I meet know that, at least with me, it is safe to do the same. Validating a woman’s authentic self maybe a subtle act of social justice,  but that doesn’t mean that it can’t change the world.