He was the third contractor my husband and I brought in for an estimate on a new roof, a major renovation we never saw coming, were not sure we needed and were agonizing over.
He talked on and on: shingle types, slide after iPad slide of water damage and hail destruction. Finally he got to the numbers: $16,000 for the roof but — for us, just for us. — $12,000.
“What do you think?” he asked.
I said we could use some time. He leaned in closer.
“What more do you need?” he pressed.
I told him we would look over all the facts and make a decision. I said this gently, nicely, so as not to bruise his ego. I was not interested — I’d been turned off by his pomp and swagger — so I used the common parlance for “no.” But he wasn’t having it.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “You don’t think your house has a problem?”
I stammered. “Well, yes,” I said.
“Do you think you need a new roof?” he railed, he bellowed. “Do you?”
This is when I got it. He saw me as the weak point, the woman, who could be made to feel defensive, who would fall into agreement with his superior experience and wisdom. But I was done with that. Many women are done with it. I was done with demure, done with I-don’t-know, done with well-yes-sir.
“I don’t appreciate being mansplained,” I said.
He laughed, scornful. “I don’t even know what that means,” he replied, and I said, “And you just lost $12,000 worth of business because of it.”
For the rest of the afternoon, I fumed. I felt the lingering frizz of aggression on my skin, as if I’d been grabbed, or followed.
In the weeks after this encounter, I thought back on another from my freshman year of college. I had gone to a house party with a friend, and an older guy led me back into a bedroom. We were kissing. He tried to climb on top of me. I said no. He berated me: Why had I come in here with him? I was being ridiculous, unfair. I don’t remember all the back and forth, only that some primal impulse rose in me and I yanked a bedside lamp cord out of its socket and threw the lamp against the opposing wall. He scrambled off me. I ran. I shook for a while, then laughed about the incident later with friends.
It is difficult to say no in sexual scenarios. It is sometimes a greater struggle to say no in the everyday situations in which men attempt to coerce women’s time, energy and attention, perhaps because these situations often don’t feel as urgent and the power dynamic isn’t as blatant. The #MeToo movement has generated an important conversation about consent and sex, but not nearly as much has been said about the dynamics of saying no in these myriad other scenarios.
When a man asked me for a “small favor” that turned out to involve more than 10,000 words of writing, I said no, but only after consulting a female friend and discovering that he’d asked her too; it seemed he’d only asked women. It was the first time I had ever said no to a man who held a degree of power and prestige over me, a shocking realization for a “strong” woman, age 36.
Women writers with multiple publications under their belts laugh quietly, later, at the haughty, amateur male who dominated the workshop conversation with declarations about literary technique. Young women smile and nod at an uncle’s illogical and inane black-and-white generalizations. We so often let the world be written by arrogant men, giving in to their windy confidence and inability to listen.
“I just wanted a no,” the roofer had said as he left. I told him I had said no many times. He just refused to hear it.
This is not only a problem of women standing up for themselves but also of what our society values. Instead of asking women to be like stereotypical men — more aggressive, assertive and dominant — why don’t we ask men to embrace the qualities that tend to be marginalized as feminine? Why don’t we ask men to be humble and curious? To sit back and listen? To question themselves?
We celebrate the “strong woman” who is the closest possible option to maleness, whose femaleness is redeemed and qualified by a common male adjective. Meanwhile the rhetoric in our country has never been more belligerently masculine, or more shallow, oversimplified and destructive.
At the same time, women hold more power than ever: in Congress, in universities, as artists and entrepreneurs. Instead of emulating the old male models, these women can lead and rule and create in a different way: by listening, really listening to other people; by asking questions and pausing to reflect; by emphasizing humility, curiosity and care.
I want my daughter to feel empowered to say no in every context — to the man who tries to explain Mexico to her, or the man who asks her to do just this one little favor, make this one simple decision. I want her to say no to the boy who pushes in front of her on the slide — there is always at least one, and most of the time, his mother does not intervene. The other day, a boy elbowed his way around her and she let him. I called her over, sat her down and said, “Elena, the next time that happens, you say, ‘No, it is my turn.’ Do you understand?” She nodded. I repeated it. “You say no.” She looked relieved.
I know she’ll go on to have classes in which boys raise their hands more frequently and are called on more often. I know she’s growing up in a system in which men are paid more than women and make up 75% of Congress. But this will change, and a huge part of that change will be women saying no in all sorts of ways that seem minor but erode the male entitlement to women’s time, attention and decisions.
This isn’t about being strong. It’s about a world that runs on more than strength, than bluster and brag, than dominance and coercion. It’s about the bold claim that such a world is possible, and women will make it.
Sarah Menkedick is a nonfiction author and essayist.