Against Womansplaining: The Problem With Advice by and for Strangers

"Why imagine that writers and TV personalities who have no idea that you even exist can advise you on your personal, professional, or ethical quandaries?"
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Tantor Media; Spiegel & Grau; Gallery Books; Portfolio Penguin

Enough said about the substance of Susan A. Patton's elitist, retro, marry-young exhortation to female Ivy Leaguers. What intrigues me is the impulse to give advice to hordes of people you've never met, whose circumstances, characters, and predilections are apt to be quite different from your own.

Giving such worthlessly uninformed advice is, however, less curious than taking it. People do enjoy holding forth, after all. What's most notable is the fact that when advice-givers hold forth to strangers, some of those strangers will consider their advice. 

This is, of course, a historic American phenomenon, as firmly entrenched in our culture as the belief in rugged individualism that it belies. For centuries, self-appointed experts have offered answers, or at least approaches, to spiritual, personal, and professional questions. Many of them drink from the streams of New Thought (a collection of beliefs about mind power popularized in the 19th century) and the presumed power of positive thinking; but the perversely named self-help tradition is not monolithic. Early 20th century African-American self-improvement literature speaks in a different voice than the manuals of late 20th century pop feminists and "codependency" gurus.

Women have hardly been alone in seeking guidance from experts (think of Dale Carnegie) but, historically, they've been particularly active marketers and consumers of personal advice, perhaps in part because individualism has generally been deemed a masculine virtue. (Co-dependency was a stereotypically feminine vice.) When Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote The Solitude of Self, in 1892, stressing that women, like men, "must make the voyage of life alone," she was challenging fundamental notions of femininity and gender roles. 

But even in the 21st century, in the aftermath of second- and third-wave feminisms, when independence is not a revolutionary path for a woman, the giving and taking of advice to and from women persists. Only the subjects and substance of the advice change. No longer limited mainly to fashion, family, and domestic arts, advice-givers and takers ponder women's psyches, sex lives, careers, and perennial quests for balance.

What's wrong with seeking advice from strangers? Nothing, if you're seeking practical instruction on practical problems: how to fix your bike, prepare your taxes, or roast a leg of lamb. Practical problems can be quantified. Personal or existential challenges are idiosyncratic and resistant to formulaic fixes; they require retail, made to measure therapy. One size doesn't fit all. If some women might prosper by following Susan's Patton's advice to marry young, others would not.

I don't mean to dismiss the familiar dilemmas posed to women by conflicting obligations, demands, and desires, or the relief to be found in merely talking about them. (Nor am I dismissing the need for policy solutions to practical problems that many women share.) I do mean to doubt the value of a stranger's advice. Why do people write to advice columnists, I always wonder (assuming that the letters seeking advice are not written by the columnists themselves.) Why seek wisdom from talk-show hosts? Why imagine that writers and TV personalities who have no idea that you even exist can advise you on your personal, professional, or ethical quandaries? 

I'm not denigrating advice in general. Personally, I am not at all averse to trading advice with family and close friends. My marriage vows, (authored by my friend Harvey Silverglate) required my husband to promise to "listen to Wendy's advice, and to appreciate it, even if you don't always agree with it." I promised, in return, to "listen respectfully to his spouting off on subjects concerning which you are convinced that you know far more than he does."

Generally, we all owe similar courtesies of respectful listening to the people with whom we engage, in person. But we owe nothing to the self-appointed experts "spouting off" in the marketplace, offering "personal" advice not to persons but to classes of people. My advice? Think twice before you take advice from strangers.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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