Do we inherently take pride in being a ‘good woman’?

Disha Roy Choudhury
womens day 2020, happy womens day

Do women want to be liked? (Source: Getty Images)

A female friend was advised not to reveal too much about herself while discussing terms of an arranged marriage with a potential male partner. There was no need, she agreed, or it could lead to unneccessary judgement. One could perhaps find the idea problematic but come to think of it, with all our wokeness in place, there have been times when many of us women have chosen to avoid any confrontation and compromised with our feminist ideals in a situation.

One wonders if that makes us hypocrites. Or not, especially when most of us are struggling with the socially ingrained gendered values we have been raised by, juxtaposed with our sensitisation about gender equality at a later stage. We want to assert our agency and live the way we want but more often than not, there is a lingering unease about paying the price of transgression.

In an article in The India Forum, author and professor at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, Peter Ronald deSouza draws attention to "transgression" as a voluntary alternative as opposed to societal norms that regulate behaviour and "give legitimacy to the structure of incentives and penalties in any society". It is no secret that women have traditionally had to bear the brunt of these very "incentives and penalties", which makes it all the more difficult for many of us to be outrageous in our choices because we are highly suspicious of those who actually manage to do so.

Sociologist and lead researcher of Sheryl Sandberg's, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Marianne Cooper found in her study on women in the workplace about the "ones who are applauded for delivering results at work but then reprimanded for being 'too aggressive', 'out for herself', 'difficult', and 'abrasive'", she wrote in an article in Harvard Business Review.

Truth be told, many of us are guilty of attributing a woman's extreme success to ploy and doubting the person's true potential. Experts have repeatedly argued on the inverse relation between a woman's success and likeability to show why they are not easily welcomed in authoritative positions. Women are expected to be "prosocial", states research, displaying care and concern for fellow colleagues, any deviation from which raises eyebrows.

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Think about how a working woman has to cope with the pressure of balancing her personal and professional commitments. She is an independent, empowered woman of today but that does not make her immune to the need to live up to people's expectations from her as a caregiver. More so when she is a working mother--constantly grappling with the guilt of not doing enough--because many of us feel a strong need to manage all duties with equal prowess, even if it is exhausting.

As women, we mostly want to fight the norms of patriarchy, but while being accepted in our evolved identities by society. Nobody wants to be ostracised, so we settle for a middle ground. We talk about owning our bodies but also make sure to get waxed every month; we embark on risky sexual adventures but stealthily. And in the process, we keep evaluating our greater worth by comparing ourselves to other women who have "no control" or whom we call "loose", at the risk of being sexist.

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Psychologist and author Tanu Shree Singh tells indianexpress.com, "The concept of a 'good girl' is so deeply engrained into our psyche, that even the most vociferous of feminists sometimes fall prey. We might be able to quieten that voice inside us that questions our adequacy, gauges our success or failure as a homemaker, mother, wife or simply as a woman. And comparison, given the culturally determined expectations from a woman, always do make us feel better! Our own reactions sometimes surprise us when life throws a curve ball. These reactions/expectations are a result of long standing cultural, societal, and familial expectations that over years become an inseparable part of who we are. So the fight to be more than the list of expectations thrust on us starts from within rather than outside."

Studies have shown how women tend to conform more than men. A study published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly found that females tend to conform more than males, especially when under surveillance as well as when subjects formed impressions of one another's likability. It is because of the strong need for approval, in case it opens up the chance for women to be heard, something we continue to struggle with.

Author Sowmya Rajendran adds, "There's conditioning, certainly, but we mustn't forget that as a society, we enforce punishments on women who are not interested in being the 'good girl'. So, it's a collective responsibility to break out of that and is not up to only the individual. Women are expected to compete with other women to win male approval."

No matter the compromises, many of us still want to be perceived as "good women", only to belong, to feel included.