Column

Why Women Apologize

Once again, a woman faces repercussions for her own success

Though Joe Biden still hasn’t announced his VP pick, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president has committed to bringing a woman onto his ticket. That promise feels a little marred, however, given that the campaign may only want a female vice president who is sufficiently contrite.

Politico reported on Monday that Sen. Kamala Harris’ front-runner status was put in jeopardy because she didn’t apologize for shellacking Biden in the first Democratic debate. (Harris memorably, and correctly, attacked Biden on his opposition to school busing and working across the aisle with segregationists.)

Former Sen. Chris Dodd, a member of the VP search committee, was apparently put off because when he questioned Harris about the debate exchange, she laughed and said, “That’s politics.”

“She had no remorse,” Dodd reportedly said.

One would think that the ability to shine during a national debate alongside the country’s leading politicians would make Harris even more desirable as a running mate — but non-apologetic women have no place in power, even with supposedly progressive leaders.

Ironically, feminist messaging over the last few years has been obsessed with stopping women from over-apologizing. We’re told that we need to stand our ground and say what we mean without atonements or mea culpas — that leaving the guilt behind is how we’ll amass power in the way that men have. The only problem? It doesn’t work.

Study after study shows that women who are seen as forceful or ambitious — women who aren’t “warm” or accommodating (the way we teach girls they should be) — are seen as less likable and less competent. And so as much as we tell women that they don’t have to apologize, the truth is — we sort of do. Because when we don’t, when we make clear that we won’t be bullied or shamed, we are punished or judged — just as Harris is being now.

We know that any sign that we aren’t accommodating will be used against us.

This is especially true for women of color — Black women, in particular — who are already operating under biases about brashness and anger. Black women are also more likely to be judged negatively in the workplace, and more likely to feel that their accomplishments have been overlooked.

Women know all this. It’s why we put too many exclamation points in our emails, why we overuse the word “just,” why we’re polite when we should be forceful, why we smile when we’re not feeling particularly happy. We know that any sign that we aren’t accommodating will be used against us.

I’m thrilled that Harris wasn’t “remorseful” — she had nothing to be sorry for, and any presidential hopeful who needs his ego stroked during a plague that has killed 150,000 Americans should feel ashamed. Maybe Dodd will be called out for his sexism; maybe if President Trump only serves one term we can start to fix the workplace issues that make women jump through emotional hoops to ensure that men feel secure enough not to punish anyone who voices a dissenting opinion.

Until then, sorries are beside the point.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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