Being a “difficult woman”

By Caitlin Kelly


Well-behaved women seldom make history — Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 1976

The photo above is me, age 37, fencing at nationals, among the women who made U.S. sports history by being the first to fence saber at that level.

Loved this recent column by stroppy British business journo Lucy Kellaway, initially published in the Financial Times:

Being difficult at work is not generally thought to be a good thing. On Amazon there are 1,387 titles on how to deal with difficult people, including Since Strangling Isn’t an Option. I failed to find a single volume called What to do When the Difficult Person is Me. Or How to be Difficult and Influence People.

As a columnist, being difficult is part of the job – if you do not enjoy sometimes getting up the noses of readers, you are too bland to be any good. Indeed, as a journalist, being personally difficult can serve you rather well. I can think of one or two writers who are so impossible their text is never tampered with. Their words invariably command pride of place because no editor can face the fuss that would result from doing otherwise.

Being difficult has other advantages too. It means that people tend not to lean on you for small favours. As one of the most important tricks to survival in the corporate world is to avoid grunt work, this makes it a powerful weapon. Being difficult also means you are likely to be better at getting your own way. It is a balancing act – you must be difficult enough to insist that things are done as you see fit, without being so difficult that people refuse to work with you.

In my first ever newspaper job, at 26, for the national daily Globe & Mail, I won that moniker as well.

I like it.

I’ve been reading Roxane Gay’s book of essays, Bad Feminist, in which she ponders the problem of being likable, of needing and wanting to be likable — and how playing along with the status quo so often weakens us as women.

“Even from a young age I understood that when a girl in unlikable, a girl is a problem. I also understood that I wasn’t being intentionally mean. I was being honest (admittedly without tact), and I was being human. It is either a blessing or curse that those are rarely likable qualities in a woman.

Women who stand up for themselves, and others, are often labeled “difficult” — as in non-pliable, not sufficiently obedient or deferential or polite or, worst of all, just not very “nice.”

Not friendly.

As though these were the most crucial attributes a woman can offer to the world.

A must-read book for every woman who wants to remain alive, safe and free from criminal predation is The Gift of Fear.

I was given it by a man I dated in 1998 — a con man, a convicted criminal I discovered had served time in Chicago and moved to New York where he found fresh victims, which included me. Being a lot more difficult would have kept me safe from him, but I was lonely, isolated and vulnerable to sustained attention.

This smart, tough book, written by a security expert, makes very clear that our wish to be seen as kind or welcoming, as unthreatening, can kill us.

Of course, no one wants to work with or live with or marry or be friends with someone who’s always a frosty bitch or a draaaaaaama queen or queen bee.

You can be “difficult” and still be someone people love deeply and respect the hell out of — it just might be a much smaller circle.

When I meet a woman, or hear about one whose accomplishments I admire, I rarely care if she is or was a likable person.

Better she be passionate, compassionate, principled, intelligent, articulate, active, connected, courageous.

As resistance to Donald Trump grows, one American writer credits women with reinvigorating the left.

From New York magazine:

Women, with women of color at front and center, can be the engines of new progressive activism in all arenas. It’s a rebuke to the theory floated by some on the left that there is a disjunction between “identity politics” and politics, a rebuke to those who suggested in the wake of Trump’s electoral win that the future lies in moving away from divisive “social issues” and identity-framed movements and back to economic policies.

What this event did, on the most massive scale we have seen in this country, is reaffirm what has always been true: The impact of identity bias has always been economic, and economic issues have always most powerfully disadvantaged those who experience identity bias. Or to put it another way: Women’s rights are human rights.

It takes guts and determination to fight oppression.

To ask for the job.

To speak truth to power.

To ask for a raise.

To leave a crappy marriage.

To stand up to a bully, even one who’s not talking to you. (Bitch!)

To challenge the status quo.

It also takes having some money in the bank, a fuck-you fund to pay the bills when the boss decides you’re just too annoying.

It’s difficult.

Are you a difficult woman?

How’s that working out for you?

29 thoughts on “Being a “difficult woman”

  1. (Leaving the political stuff alone because I see it sadly damaging so many relationships-esp among women these days..) I will say that your comments on “the gift of fear” truly struck a nerve. As women, so many of us have been trained to be PC and polite to the point where we ignore our GUT instincts in potentially dangerous situations. I have told my girls (the youngest still in college) that the good Lord instilled in us a keen ability to sense danger and we should heed it when it kicks in no matter how we think it makes us “look” to others. Thanks for the reminder!

    1. Good mom!!!

      The book is super smart and reminds us to be tough before being “nice.” One of the things he discusses is “forced teaming” — where a guy suddenly “helps” you (a stranger, pay attention) and thereby gains access to your home, your car and your body. Now, with everyone on social media and looking into a phone, being aware and vigilant is even more essential.

      He even includes a checklist of behaviors that tip you off to a con man…and, yes, the man I dated met all the criteria. Ugh.

      1. I worry so about my youngest..I really do. There is a strong, strong PC code these college kids seem to live by where questioning someone’s motives- like a strange guy wanting to walk you home-is considered completely un-enlightened, possibly racist, classist, elitist name it. Add some alcohol to the situation and now every natural sense of self-preservation has been stripped away. I’ll have to get her this least the “lecture” won’t be coming from me again.. 😏

      2. Ugh. Seriously…that is some endangering bullshit, for sure.

        I was very lucky in college that we did not binge drink; Canadians drink legally at 18, not 21, so the whole get-drunk-fast thing (which is insane) just never happened among people I knew. U of Toronto is a nerd school. 🙂

        She MUST read that book. Would you rather be PC or safe? PC or alive? PC or un-raped? It’s not a joke. Take it from me…when the con man knew I was on to him, he lied to our local DA (yes, really) about me. The cops laughed at me. The DA laughed at me — he had committed SIX felonies.

        If I had been a weaker or less assured woman, it might have killed me emotionally. It took me a long time to recover, as it was.

  2. Thanks to the example of my non conformist parents I have been a difficult girl whole life. But as you know the axis of race deepens my gender so I also get to be the “angry black woman” much less fun ;). Growing up I spent years resenting that the binary was always before us as the implicit ‘reference’ for our actions. Typically those who don’t “like” us for challenging the status quo are it’s proponents so naturally I take it as a sign of effectiveness that they are stirred! However, the only time I still resent the disadvantages levelled upon woman who assert their power is in leadership roles. Often you are not compassionate when you are decisive and also not effective if you are are tentative! #thestruggle! So I’ve decided that perhaps my best contribution to dismantling gender norms is to engage my children with a different dialogue along with the one they are having with society.

    1. So true. Thanks for commenting!

      My husband is Hispanic, and I’ve witnessed how much “nicer” he has had to be while his Ivy League bow-tied bosses and colleagues just bluff and bluster and bullshit their way through life. Drives me mad.

      So true that challenging power just brings down even more authoritarian insanity — hello, Trump.

      I’ve seen how women (tone) police one another, esp. on-line, and it’s not pretty. Having been bullied by men and bullied by women, I’ll take on a man any day instead. 🙂

      1. Most of my friends are male. I find them much easier to get along with. However, I also find them extremely challenging at times. When their need to protect overpowers my need to be independent, the fireworks begin. The male ego can be easily wounded.

        I do have a select few female friends. We come and go and come back again in each other’s lives. I can be a very difficult woman, given the right or wrong set of circumstances. I totally trust my gut instincts, they have never led me astray. Being aware of your surroundings, no matter where you are is key to PC for anyone, including macho man. Laying that as your foundation for daily life will keep you safer. There are no guarantees, yet you significantly increase your chances by doing those two simple things.

        I have been harmed multiple times in my 50+ years. Learning PC, is a good thing for every woman, starting in girlhood. I taught both of my children how to protect themselves. Unfortunately, history has a way of repeating itself….be cognizant and careful with everyone, even family members. People who manipulate other people for their own self serving purposes are generally Narcissistic or Sociopaths. Some just exhibit the characteristics. Be aware, and don’t be scared. Showing weakness can get you hurt, or dead. Strong women may not be well liked. They are respected, and generally left alone. If you open yourself up to be a target, you will become a victim. It’s a vicious cycle.

      2. Lots to think about here.

        I agree, entirely, about the need to be more aware/wary…but that’s also me, and also a result of having been badly hurt (psychologically) by people who should have known better. I’m much less open than I once was, so my circle of intimates is small, but they mean a great deal. I don’t do chitchat or acquaintance.

        My husband is the most protective man I’ve ever met, and we’ve sparred over that, but it’s also a sign of his love and wish for me to remain healthy and safe, so I respect the intent.

  3. Fatima

    I have not been called difficult. I have hard ‘frustrating’ as in “Why are you so frustrating” calling into question how a certain decision would impact students. (For crying out loud, I work in a library and they do keep us afloat.) I have also heard ‘undiplomatic and tactless’ used by a co-worker, in an email, copied to her people in her small department. It hurts less now, before it kept me down for months, sometimes years.

    I wrote that paragraph smiling all the way. I alway pick my battles but I have done the don’t-rock-the-boat approach and it’s exhausting. I would rather be a frustrating woman than someone trying to keep my head down in the face of something wrong.

    1. Thanks for weighing in…Being Canadian complicates things, (one reason I moved to NY!), as conflict is culturally so taboo. 🙂

      I also really resent it when someone labels you as “frustrating”…it’s so passive aggressive! If honest, they might say “I feel frustrated when you…” and OWN their feelings instead of slapping a label on you.

      OUCH on that email. Poor you. What a terrible thing to say about you, and a co-worker (not even a boss.) Again, labeling…not cool.

      Women who are direct in their speech (no ums or sorrys or I think that’s…) can be perceived as rude or tactless. I’ve been called rude several times by someone who was (!?) interrupting me constantly and speaking at the same time…and when I told them to stop, was told I was rude. Hmmm. Really?

      Rock on. 🙂

      1. Fatima

        When I was in New York for my trip, it felt liberating to walk the streets and stand my ground on the subway. It doesn’t stop me from being a considerate or kind person, it helps balance it. Thank you by the way, it’s still a work in progress. I had years of Portuguese-Canadian training.

      2. I knew that! 🙂 Have you read Anthony de Sa”s great book Kicking the Sky?

        In NYC, if you don’t get assertive, you’re toast. People here aren’t “rude” but they move fast and are direct. I prefer it as a mode of behavior, so I like it here. Some people hate it!

  4. Hi.. I’m not a difficult woman, but I admire a lot the ones who manage to be difficult when necessary. I sometimes oppose but get all trembling inside, and when I comply to general athmosphere around me, while somehow it doesn’t fit my values or makes me feel bored, I afterwards get a low feeling of self loathing. It feels like someone must have noticed that I really WAS bored when everybody were repeating for the tenth time the same well known facts, or that everybody knows that my silence means I’m really not agreeing when a group I’m part of decides to boycott a bread supply because the owner is a woman with a veil. The person who notices is myself most of the time, but that is enough, being easy to others is being difficult to the self… only…being difficult is so insulating, as long periods of loneliness have confirmed each time I was. Thanks for that post. Not to necessarily have you read it, but I recently wrote an article on a book called “difficult daughters” and definitly the logic was related. I also,read Roxane’s Gay’s essay and thought it was very useful as a support for thinking. I was more especially questionning myself about how I would have delt with her if she had been in my school when kids. I hope I would have been nice to her, even though she must have been difficult.

    1. Thanks for such a long and thoughtful comment!

      It’s very true — when you stand up for yourself (and/or for others, confronting a bully or other injustice), many people shrink away, far and fast. They don’t want to be seen with you or associated with you…it can be very very lonely, which is why I really admire women who DO stand up to power. They do attract strong allies, even as they/we make determined enemies.

      I think many women struggle with the choice to be firm — or liked. To be true to our own values and principles or others’, to “go along to get along.” Too bad it’s sometimes a choice, but it is.

  5. I’m not a difficult woman. Difficult man rather. I’ve had ok relationships cooking kale and shit with whomever. I’ve had better relationships with women who argue and are difficult to appease.

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  7. I thoroughly enjoy being with a man who loves me when I’m difficult! How liberating to be able to say and feel and think whatever, on any given day, and change your mind the next! 🙂

    I’ve been with boys who do not get it. Not that a man can really ever truly understand how we feel walking down the street, or finding ourselves alone after dark, but there are boys who refuse to get it, who think it’s all in our heads and are offended by the idea that we could think such things about them (hello, it’s called survival). And then there are men who know they don’t get it, can’t ever really get it, but know that it’s there, and understand that trust takes time and trust is earned.
    I think men who want women to be obedient instead of interesting are mentally weak. They need to be the one calling the shots and are terrified of being challenged. Men who want debate, discussion, and love learning from you just as much as they love to teach you something new, are the ones that will help turn the tide. These men, raising daughters… only good things can come!

    My partner has actually said that if we have daughters, they will grow up empowered, and without bodily shame. RED POWER he calls it (I’m sure you can guess why *red* hahaha). 😛

    1. Yes to all of that.

      It’s depressing as hell when men feel women have to be deferential and submissive. Seriously? How did your wittle ego get so fwagile?

      My husband and I work in the same industry (journalism) which attracts and retains tough-minded and tenacious people, esp. women. So the easily cowed tend to self-select out — or get fired enough to get the hint.

      I have no idea what life must be like (shudder) married to Trump, but the video I have seen of him — seen by millions worldwide — has shown him to be dismissive, cold and rude to Melania. I’d change the locks in a heartbeat, billions or no $$$$$.

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  9. I love this! I’m also reading Bad Feminist at the moment (so eye-opening!), and I have struggled with getting my head around the fact that I am naturally a #nastywoman in the recent reclaiming sense of the word! I refuse to accept the injustices and inequalities of a system that was not designed for us. There has to be a better way, and I’m going to support every initiative that explores any options we have! 🙂

  10. Not that a man can really ever truly understand how we feel walking down the street, or finding ourselves alone after dark, but there are boys who refuse to get it, who think it’s all in our heads and are offended by the idea that we could think such things about them (hello, it’s called survival). They don’t want to be seen with you or associated with you…it can be very very lonely, which is why I really admire women who DO stand up to power.

    1. And yet, it’s scary to stand up because you never know what will happen if/when you do.

      Literally, 20 minutes ago — in the doorway of the Paris apt bldg I’m staying in (!?) — some guy starts hitting on me, in French, telling me I’m charming and beautiful. Then he switches to English…then (good timing) my husband came down the stairs. I wasn’t scared but it was weird and unsettling.

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