Does Feminism Make Room for Shy or Introverted Girls?


Here’s an excerpt from a wonderful piece in Feministing by intellectual powerhouse Courtney Martin, questioning whether contemporary feminism makes room for shy or introverted girls. Courtney articulates something I’ve worried about for years – in our efforts to instill confidence in young women, are we promoting an ideal of sassy outspokenness that’s just as confining as the 1950s model of docility?

Here’s Courtney:

As I make the rounds of girls’ leadership development programs and camps this summer (I’m thrilled to be headed to The Girls Leadership Institute next month, co founded by one of my favorite human beings, Rachel Simmons), I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of leadership model we are pushing for young women. I fear that too often we present leadership as something necessarily loud and a leader as someone who must seek the limelight. It’s understandable, of course, that the pendulum has swung in this direction; after all, we’re facing up against centuries of the reverse socialization–the ideal woman as demure, quiet, and in the shadows. We’re doing our damnedest to convince the next generation of women that they don’t have to shrink from opportunities just to feel feminine or keep quiet so as not to offend the, assholes, I mean traditional leadership structure.

But, sometimes I fear that in our well-intentioned advocacy for more assertive, more outspoken girls, we’ve sometimes made those whose style is naturally quieter and less showy feel as if they aren’t bonafide leaders…

What do you think?  Is there a way to encourage girls to speak their minds without making them feel they have to be natural extroverts?

(By the way, I consider myself a feminist, and am posting this out of concern for the strength of feminism, rather than as an outsider eager to critique its flaws.)

Please join the conversation!

*Courtney is a writer, teacher, speaker, and lover of dance parties and brussel sprouts. You can see her talk at TED Women here, and read more about her work at her website.


share this Does Feminism Make Room for Shy or Introverted Girls?


  1. Jane London on 12.07.2011 at 08:09 (Reply)

    I love this post, even though I’m a bit of a loudmouth during my day job (radio host). I have no problem with women, or people in general, who have a lot to say, as long as it’s rational and well thought out. But, I agree with her point that we are in a period, culturally, where we seem to encourage sassiness as leadership in women. To me, in movies and pop culture, it crosses over into obnoxious.
    I’ll take thoughtful and articulate, over emotional and strident leaders, thank you very much.

  2. Danielle on 12.07.2011 at 08:35 (Reply)

    It would be wonderful if businessmen would respect quiet business women and take them seriously, but unfortunately I think we have a long ways to go before that happens. I fear that being quiet comes across to businessmen as automatically being allowed to intimidate us.

    Some years ago, I was alone at the office when a door-to-door sales rep knocked at the door to sell me something that we had no use for. I smiled and politely said “no thank you” and proceeded to close the door.

    Because I was a polite woman alone at the office, this rep decided to intimidate me by sticking his foot in the door to not only force his sale on me but to also force his way into the office. Having seen my mother stand up for herself in the past, I emulated her. I stood my ground, gave that sales rep my deadliest dirty look and seething with anger I barked at him:” You have exactly five seconds to get your foot out of that door or I will not hesitate to break it and then have you arrested.”

    I may be introverted, but that doesn’t make me a push-over. Unfortunately, I have to get angry to make myself understood, otherwise people think that they can intimidate me into submission.

    I don’t think that I will ever see the day when quieter women will be taken seriously without having to growl and show their claws.

  3. Royan Lee on 12.07.2011 at 12:15 (Reply)

    It’s funny because I never really examined the extent to which I myself hold these biases…

  4. Christy on 12.07.2011 at 12:16 (Reply)

    I greatly appreciate that lovely bit of balance in her article. I’m always looking for thoughtful balance in things that tend to polarize people, and that’s why I don’t usually like feminism much more than I like males-only leadership ideas. In order to be seen as a female leader or a worthwhile female at all you have to be loud and strident and blame one particular part of the population for everything? No thank you. I like the balance of the idea that *anyone* is worthwhile, male or female, and *anyone* can learn to be a good leader if they choose, whether shy, fearless, introverted, or extraverted.

  5. Julie on 12.07.2011 at 12:44 (Reply)

    This is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. As a lifelong introvert and a feminist, I’ve never felt that feminism didn’t “make room” for me.

    There’s a disturbing vibe on this site. An extrovert coming upon it would likely come away with the idea that introverts are incapable of living in modern society. We’re apparently afraid to speak in public, afraid to talk to others at parties, afraid to stand up for ourselves at work, afraid to stand up for our rights. Never mind that a lot of us are mature adults who actually can function well in society.

    As for this idea that feminism sees “sassiness” as leadership, I think that’s more of a stereotype of feminism than actual feminism.

    “In order to be seen as a female leader or a worthwhile female at all you have to be loud and strident and blame one particular part of the population for everything?”

    No, you don’t. I would love to know what this notion of feminism is based upon.

  6. Jlynn on 12.07.2011 at 12:55 (Reply)

    I think we need to be careful to associate feminism only with women. Feminism is a perspective, a lens for viewing the world (not singular but multiple ways of seeing across differences and intersections).

    I think the point of view above is an interesting one and worth considering. As an introverted feminist, I have learned though feminist leaders (extroverts, introverts and everyone in between)to develop my own voice. I am not often someone to address a large group but through small group and particularly one on one interactions I do speak up. We also need to consider the way voice leads to action as well as how we communicate through written word, art, photographs etc. Over the long haul a strong leader needs to be able to talk the talk and walk the walk.

    Regardless of how introverted someone is it is important as feminists to be leaders and teach other feminists to be able to stand their ground and speak their mind. As leaders though, the ability to step up and be vocal at some level is needed, but it is certainly not a regular requirement in many cases which I think is what needs to be exemplified.

  7. Susan Cain on 12.07.2011 at 13:40 (Reply)

    Thx to all who have commented so far with very passionate perspectives.

    As someone who has taught negotiation seminars for over ten years to groups of young women, including in the context of feminist leadership organizations, I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time.

    I believe that feminism does and should train women to speak and communicate, in large and small groups and everything in between. I also believe that introverts, including shy introverts, often make terrific public speakers.

    But many (not all) introverts often have a quieter, more thoughtful style of sharing ideas, and I think we need to be doing more to EXPLICITLY celebrate this style and to proactively work with young women to refine its power. People who speak thoughtfully and judiciously often have a very disarming power at the podium and in person. But too often I have seen young women with these styles exhorted to be louder, bolder, more uninhibited, when I think that a more nuanced approach would have suited them better.

  8. Tracy on 12.07.2011 at 16:10 (Reply)

    I love this! I’ll start by saying I am a female and an introvert, and I have become a huge fan of this site since learning of it a few months back. Susan, I love how this site provides a platform for a different perspective based on temperament. I find your views, questions, insights to be very balanced while identifying there is a bias culturally in the US towards extroversion. I have noticed this bias personally and so I quietly and thoughtfully choose a different course to present my own ideas ,etc. (one of the great benefits of blogs, the internet, etc.!) My family members who are extroverts have never been encouraged by other family members to “tone it down” or “please talk a little less, or a little less enthusiastically”, or to “think before they speak” . . . . I use these phrases because they are the exact opposite of what I have been told I should do to be more like them: Be more exciting . . . talk more . . . don’t think so much. Both approaches have so much to offer. (This “encouragement” has also occurred in school, job and social settings as well). In my opinion both approaches need to be equally celebrated, in the same way I think both men and women are to be equally celebrated.

    Personally, I wouldn’t say that because of repeated exhortations from others that I be different that I struggle to function, or am incapable of living in modern society. However, to be told to be different than who you are in many different contexts simply because your style/temperament does not fit the norm, is at the least frustrating, and can at times, leave one asking oneself, “is there something wrong with me, or my style”, and this could potentially lead some to conclude their views, perspectives, ideas or style are not welcome in that setting.

    In the same way that many young women today are celebrated for being outspoken and assertive (as the writer of the article points out) I agree that we need to see another style equally celebrated and point out the power of these other styles of leadership. I think to see both styles celebrated would empower all women, all people really.

    I love men, and I’d love to hear their perspective on this too - both introverted and extroverted men. As a single parent raising a young man, who thus far seems to have an introverted personality, I’d love to hear more on these topics in the future.

    Thanks again Susan!!

  9. marina on 12.07.2011 at 19:38 (Reply)

    I love the vibe of this site. It’s encouraging, passionate, respectful, and intellectual. I wish I thought of it! :)

  10. Susan Cain on 12.07.2011 at 21:15 (Reply)

    I’ve been thinking more about this discussion and would like to add one thing. I want to really encourage people to share any viewpoints they have, including critiques of this site or blogposts, or disagreements with each other’s ideas. Unless you all feel free to voice your thoughts, I have no way of knowing what does and doesn’t work for you re: the site. I also want us to benefit from each other’s perspectives, even if we don’t always agree.

    At the same time, I think we should refrain from calling something “dumb,” etc — i.e., no name-calling.

    As for vibe of the site, I do think it’s worth thinking about how to strike the right balance among (a) pointing out society’s bias against introversion, (b) working on personal issues that some introverts find challenging, (c) highlighting and analyzing introverts’ strengths, and (d) discussing stuff — current events, books, psychological research, social trends, whatever — that’s of intellectual or emotional interest to introverts.

    It’s tricky to get this balance right, and we’ll figure it out as we go.

  11. philosophotarian on 13.07.2011 at 13:01 (Reply)

    I am a feminist, an introvert, and philosopher working on a dissertation about silence. Happy to see this come up. There is so much focus on saying and speech and on refusing to be silenced. This is all, of course, extremely important. I have noticed that the more willing I am to say less (sorry about the convoluted sentence), the more I get called (by friends and acquaintances) a doormat. I receive hostile responses when I try to talk about the power of saying nothing, or of saying less, or of waiting until what has to be said can be said in such a way that it will *do* more. (sorry for the abstractness.)

    I find I am able to say more when I wait to say anything; I am able to think about what I want to say and why I want to say it and so I am better able to stand by what I say; I am able to avoid otherwise needless squabbles or disagreements when I hold off until I understand what’s going on. And this is called being a doormat.

  12. HPlischke on 13.07.2011 at 21:47 (Reply)

    It’s not feminism making women/girls feel they need to be loud, brash — daredevil even — and stand out against the crowd …. On the contrary, it’s a general sexist & misogynistic trend in pop culture.

    Very interesting posts on your website Susan, thank you!

  13. Valerie on 14.07.2011 at 23:04 (Reply)

    Introverts are not necessarily shy. We just like to listen before jumping in! My Grandfather used to say that if you are quiet and listen to everyone else first, then you will not only know what you think, but also what everyone else thinks! You will know twice as much!

  14. Tambelin on 31.07.2011 at 02:55 (Reply)

    I think the danger is less attributable to feminism than it is the broader culture that espouses that leadership fit a particular (often highly vocal) mold. Challenging those assumptions (as this site does) is important not only for feminism but for our society at large. A wonderful article on leadership here:

    1. Christy on 31.07.2011 at 19:58 (Reply)

      That is an amazing article. I particularly like what he has to say about books and friends.

  15. اركان on 02.01.2012 at 08:53 (Reply)

    بجديدكم الممتع أحب أن يكون لبريدي رونقاً خاصاً برسائلكم المميزة راسلوني

  16. Sarah Noonan on 15.04.2012 at 18:05 (Reply)

    I definitely agree that introverted girls and women can get left behind in the dialogue about what it means to be a strong woman. Elaborating on HPlischke’s comment, women are still bombarded with imagery and messages about how we should dress, act - just as we always have been. Only now they’re coming from other women as well as men, and we are pressured to perfectly balance being assertive and promiscuous with being nurturing and sweet.

  17. MEG on 06.06.2013 at 22:24 (Reply)

    Hi. I don’t know if I’m a feminist or not. I was never good at assigning myself labels! But I do know I spent 6 years working as a seaman on an oceangoing ship. Often I was the only female on a crew of 18. I am neither loud nor boisterous in demeanor. I believe that taking time to observe situations, and listen to people was a big advantage. It allowed me to understand what was going on and make educated decisions in tricky social situations. Several of my shipmates said they actually liked how I am quiet and don’t chat all the time. No, I never gave orders, or tried to run the show, but I became the person to whom they all came when they just wanted somebody to listen to them. In that way, I felt I had way more influence over the crew, than if I had tried to be ‘authoritative’ and ‘confident’. I managed to exist in a ‘man’s world’ by doing exactly the opposite of what is advocated. Just because I am ‘quiet’ doesn’t mean I am a push over. It means that when I do put my foot down and say NO, people actually listen because they know I mean it. I like working with men, and I like the way men think! I am also grateful to be female, and to be gentle in the midst of the ‘tough guys.’ I don’t feel like I have to act that way also in order to be respected.

Leave a comment

Quiet: The Book

- Wall Street Journal

Bill Gates names "The Power of Introverts" one of his all-time favorite TED Talks.

Best Nonfiction Book of 2012

QUIET has been voted the best nonfiction book of 2012


1. There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.

2. Our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our “heed-takers” more than ever.

3. Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

Read More

Join the Quiet Revolution
Susan on Facebook