For anyone who has been a teenager–or has faced the blunt wrath of one–there is something about the clarity of belief and total confidence in one’s position that should appeal to all of us when we discuss assertiveness. In honor of International Women’s Day, I’m using both US and foreign examples of teenage assertiveness.
First, a historic example that I was fascinated to learn last fall when our institute hosted a conference on the 19th Amendment and the suffrage movement. In the early days of our republic, there was a move to start educating women and “women’s academies” were created to give girls the opportunities to learn. These academies flourished and early leaders of both the abolition movement and suffrage movement came from these schools. One of the salutatorian addresses was saved for posterity and its author, Priscilla Mason, is damning in how she calls out the patriarchy:
Our high and mighty Lords (thanks to their arbitrary constitutions) have denied us the means of knowledge, and then reproached us for the want of it. Being the stronger party, they early seized the sceptre and the sword; with these they gave laws to society; they denied women the advantage of a liberal education; forbid them to exercise their talents on those great occasions, which would serve to improve them. They doom’d the sex to servile or frivolous employments, on
purpose to degrade their minds, that they themselves might hold unrivall’d, the power and pre-eminence they had usurped. Happily, a more liberal way of thinking begins to prevail. The sources of knowledge are gradually opening to our sex. Some have already availed themselves of the privilege so far, as to wipe off our reproach in some measure. …But supposing now that we possess’d all the talents of the orator, in the highest perfection; where shall we find a theatre for the display of them? The Church, the Bar, and the Senate are shut against us. Who shut them? Man; despotic man, first made us incapable of the duty, and then forbid us the exercise. Let us by suitable education, qualify ourselves for those high departments–they will open before us.
The first time I read this, I was shocked. There really was a young woman, who was willing to be this angry in public, calling out the sexist structure of the early republic? Why didn’t we learn about this in high school? Imagine if we had all been quoting Priscilla Mason our whole lives! Imagine every young woman used her voice to call out the sexism getting in her way.
Our more modern-day example does just that. Most of us know the story well–Malala Yousafzai started blogging at age 11 for the BBC about living with the Taliban threats to deny her an education.. As we know, this nearly cost her her life when an assassin shot her in the head in 2012 when she was 15. Within a year, she was recovered and speaking around the world. As she said at the UN, “the terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.” She has since won the Nobel Prize, written books, studied at Oxford, and continues to be an icon promoting girls’ education throughout the world.
One last example–again of a teenager overseas–is that of Greta Thunberg (with Malala above.) Thunberg is now famous for starting a strike outside the Swedish Parliament in 2018 when she was in 9th grade. By March 2019, over 1 million students around the world followed her example and walked out of their Friday classes to protest climate change. She has now addressed world leaders in multiple interactions using candid brutality with lines like “I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists” at the US House of Representatives and “you have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words” to the United Nations. She was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2019.
All three of these young women “make adults uncomfortable” as one article put it. Trying to figure out what is this power to tell the truth, Thunberg noted, “Because we are so young, our perspective on the world, our perception of the world is so—is so, like, blank. We don’t have that much experience. We don’t say, Oh, we cannot change this because it’s always been this way, which a lot of old people say. We definitely need that new perspective to see the world.”
As negotiation teachers, when we think of assertiveness, a crucial part of that skill is the willingness to engage, the willingness to negotiate and put yourself on the line, sometimes by telling unpleasant truths or by making others uncomfortable in the current situation. (If the status quo were fine, we would not need to negotiate.) Women are, in certain studies, shown to have less propensity to negotiate. All the more reason that we should provide successful, admired examples of women being assertive. Perhaps if Priscilla, Malala, and Greta were regularly hailed as examples, more of us would be willing to talk like teenagers.
And, again, looking forward to your comments. What works or does not work about these examples? Other suggestions under the skill of assertiveness? Thanks much.