How About Never?

From Jane Austen to Rosa Parks, from Joan Didion to Stacey Abrams, saying no has been the key to female self-respect and political empowerment.

Mirrored illustration of a face with the word "NO" spelled out, using the mouth as the "O."
Eric Feferberg / AFP / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Anna Holmes is an editor and a writer; she is currently the creative director of the production company Higher Ground.

A few years ago, on the eve of my giving a commencement address at Emma Willard, a girls’ boarding school in upstate New York, the mother of one of the graduates approached me with a question:

“If you could go back to your younger self—say, six years after you’d graduated from high school—what would you ask?”

I thought about it for a second and then said, “I’m not so sure I’d ask my younger self anything, but here’s what I’d tell her: that she needs to remember to listen more carefully to the voice inside her head, especially the one saying no.”

Not coincidentally, no was the subject of the address I was to give the next morning, a speech that started off with a riff on a beloved book from childhood, Harriet the Spy, whose protagonist is nosy and obstinate, unpredictable and sometimes explosive. She refuses to go to dancing school and is a girl who, as one critic put it, tells “inconvenient truths … [and is not] very interested in people telling her who she was or what she could do.”

Harriet the Spy was perhaps an odd choice for me to lead with—or at least sort of an old one. The book was published in the mid-1960s; I had devoured it in the mid-’80s. Had any of the Emma Willard seniors even read it? How would my speech land with the graduates’ families, who probably weren’t expecting me to reference a children’s chapter book in urging their daughters, granddaughters, and sisters to say no more often? As the world opened up to them, shouldn’t these young women be embracing yes? Maybe. But I’d come to believe that for women there’s something important to be gained by saying no, not just to dancing school, but to overcaution, to caretaking, to prim obedience, and, most of all, to making sure other people feel comfortable with the power we wield. Still, I was anxious about how the audience would react to my speech. I felt better when a school administrator sought me out before the speech to tell me how much she liked the idea of it, adding, “I like to tell my advisees that no is a complete sentence.”

But for many women and girls, yes comes far more easily than no. We learn from a young age that we should appear at once competent and kind, effortless and accommodating, graceful and ungregarious. As soon as we start learning to walk and talk, we are socialized to be pleasant, to share generously, to be patient, to do emotional caretaking, and to put others before ourselves. Except in cases where we’re asked to do things we believe are outside our capabilities or purview—and studies have shown that women, unlike men, are prone to demur when faced with offers of jobs or responsibilities that we believe are above or beyond us—we are expected to say yes.

Women of color, in particular, have to find ways to survive within a society that sees our assertiveness as tantamount to aggression. (You know, the “angry Black woman” stereotype.) For us, reflexively saying yes, especially in professional spheres, is a way to preempt certain assumptions about how we express frustration, annoyance, or anger. Successful women of color are expected to obligingly—obsequiously, in fact—say yes as a way to demonstrate gratitude for successes we’ve earned on our own. If people of color have to, as the old adage goes, work twice as hard and be twice as good to succeed, the women of this cohort must contend with an additional tax: We must also be twice as accommodating, as if to thank others for allowing us our accomplishments. “This is the hallmark of white liberalism: You should be grateful and generous and sacrifice yourself,” Brittney Cooper, a professor in the department of gender and sexuality studies at Rutgers University, told me. “You should be grateful folks want you, and thank them for inviting you to the table.”

Cooper said that as a Black woman, she feels she “owes yeses” to many different communities. But the other side of that, she said, is that “precisely because I’m a Black woman and I’m super outspoken, I sometimes give yeses because I don’t want people to think I’m a diva or high-maintenance or a bitch.” Cooper describes herself as “a dark, fat Black woman with a natural—all the things that encode ‘aggressive’ and ‘uncooperative.’” So “I always want to project, I’m a team player; I make things simpler; I’m a pleasant person, and being willing to say yes to things seems to disarm people who are already ready to read you as a problem or an obstacle.” This can get exhausting. “It becomes really important to remind myself that in my willingness to say yes to other people, what I’m saying no to is my time, my rest, my peace. And when placed in that kind of context, to ask, well, Why are you so willing to inconvenience yourself for others?

For help saying no, Cooper, a member of the Crunk Feminist Collective, relies on a network of women she calls her “no coaches” for feedback on requests made for her time and energy. One of these coaches is Robin M. Boylorn, a professor at the University of Alabama who in 2011 wrote an essay for the Crunk Collective on the subject of saying no. “Robin says, ‘No no no no is my default answer, and yes has to stop being your default answer.’” Cooper said. “Robin tells me, ‘Every year I figure out how many yeses I’m going to give, and when I’m out of them, I say no.’” Cooper paused. “I aspire to this.”

Rachel Simmons, the author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, works as an executive coach in male-dominated industries like tech. She says that the expectation that women behave obediently starts as early as elementary school, when girls of 9 or 10 begin to be faced with a dilemma: Can I do something for myself or do I have to take care of other people? When I called her one Sunday at her home in Northampton, Massachusetts, Simmons explained that no can be as much a provocation for oneself as for others. “I think no is a radioactive word for a lot of women. I think saying no forces the question for women of Will I still be liked even if I choose myself? Saying no has real consequences. You have to hold it gingerly and use it wisely.”

The potential for negative consequences is partly why many women hesitate to say no. Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis who studies gender inequality, emphasizes that “it is not women’s fault for having difficulties in setting boundaries—it is a by-product of living in a patriarchal system where there are negative consequences for women [who say no], and those consequences can be benign or they can be a matter of life or death.” She adds: “This is a symptom of a society that is deeply gender unequal.”

I confess that part of my interest in the culture of no is in some respects a riposte to the emerging popularity of a certain idea of yes. Over the past decade, a fair number of folks have made careers (and millions of dollars) from marketing a sort of corny, sometimes irreverent “You go, girl” empowerment jargon that encourages women to think that if they just work hard enough and channel their inner girlboss, success will be theirs for the taking. (Girlboss comes from a 2014 best-selling book by that name, in which the author offered career advice gleaned from her career building a fashion empire. It “is more than a book,” Lena Dunham declared of #Girlboss. “It is a movement.”)

What if, instead of urging women and girls to lean in, or subscribing to the idea that we can (or should) have it all, we practiced the idea of “Enough already” or “Nah, I’m good” or “Thanks, but no thanks”? To simply say, like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, “I would prefer not to”? What if, defying others’ expectations, more women felt empowered to say no to an unfulfilling marriage (or to marriage itself), to requests for our time, to smoothing over and easing familial dysfunction or tension, to settling for less pay or responsibility at work, to making sure others are safe and happy before putting on our own oxygen masks?

Dolly Chugh is a social psychologist and professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business and a member of what she calls the “No Club,” a group of close friends who look to one another for advice on navigating professional requests and situations—kind of like Brittney Cooper’s network of coaches. The original purpose of the No Club, Chugh told me, was to encourage members to stop saying yes out of habit or an unthinking sense of obligation. Eventually, she said, the club evolved into a group that is less about negotiating no and more about making better choices across the board.

“I think the Lean In movement was intended to say yes to the things that will advance you professionally in a way that you want to advance,” said Chugh, whose work focuses on organizational behavior. “It’s tricky, though, because that can put you in this perpetual pursuit of things and overwork, burnout, and cynicism. And that’s where the no thing is pretty useful.”

Rachel Simmons, the executive coach, nods at these concerns while talking about some of her clients, mostly privileged women between the ages of 30 and 50, who grew up being told they could do anything they wanted to as long as they put their mind to it. “These women feel like they can say yes to everything,” she told me. “It’s just crazy. And I do think it’s a side effect of the Lean In mantra and American society being so focused on individual empowerment. I think those women have a really hard time saying no too, because they think they should just hack the problem and figure it out. And that is a really toxic message because it actually keeps women from considering anything outside of themselves as an obstacle.”

A few days after talking with Simmons, I called Jessica Bennett, who in 2019 published an article in The New York Times about Chugh’s No Club, which had inspired Bennett to practice saying no for a month. As she put it: “No to speaking requests. No to jobs I don’t want to do. No to coffee with your second cousin who just moved to the city and really wants someone to show her around Brooklyn. No to your baby shower. (We haven’t seen each other in a decade!) No to requests from strangers to ‘pick my brain’ when it feels as though my brain hardly has room to pick itself out of bed.” I wanted to know if Bennett’s month of saying no had had any lasting impact on how she moves throughout the world. Had she come up with strategies for how to say no? Had she been subjected to pushback, and if so, what kind? When we spoke a few days after my inquiry—What if she says no? I’d wondered when sending the email—Bennett told me that she’s gotten much better at the “polite decline.” “After a couple of weeks practicing, it sort of just got ingrained,” she said. “I don’t think I could actually differentiate between what I really wanted to do and felt obligated to do—and so saying no to things exercised a muscle that allowed me to get more clear internally in what I actually wanted to do, and I’ve continued to practice that.”

Bennett says she has a draft folder of sample nos that she uses to decline requests for her time and expertise—she’s memorized most of them at this point. (“I’m sure I use many more words, and in particular polite words and thank-yous, to decline to do something than a man would.”) She also sometimes simply doesn’t respond to emails at all. (“It’s like no response is the new no,” she joked.) And she wonders whether the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced many of us to reevaluate our lives—jobs, relationships, and so forth—has given people new license to say no. “Oftentimes just asking yourself if you really want to do something—not do you feel pressured, or is it the polite or expected thing to do—will yield a no. I think it’s liberating.”

Perhaps it is the draw of “liberation” that causes us to respond so positively to stories of women whose moral compass, personal courage, self-knowledge, and sense of integrity empower them to put their foot down or walk away. Like Jane Austen, who, after accepting a marriage proposal from a friend’s brother, changed her mind overnight and returned to the unfortunate young man to say, “Actually, no.” (Obviously not a direct quote.) Or Flo Kennedy, who, upon being denied entrance to Columbia Law in 1949, refused to accept the school’s discriminatory decision and threatened to sue. (She was later admitted.) Or Stacey Abrams, who refused on Election Night 2018 to concede defeat in the Georgia governor’s race, instead delivering what many called “an unconcession speech.” Or Rosa Parks, whose 1965 refusal to vacate a seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus helped ignite the civil-rights movement.

More recently, Naomi Osaka, in a no heard ’round the world, made headlines when she withdrew from the French Open last spring, and then from Wimbledon, to focus on her mental health, after getting flak for refusing to participate in the French Open’s mandatory media appearances. (Writing in The New York Times, Lindsay Crouse heralded Osaka’s “Power of Nope.”) At the Olympics in July, Simone Biles, despite the overwhelming pressure on her to perform, prudently resisted it and withdrew from five events, citing psychological issues. (Biles would later say that Osaka’s withdrawal from the two Grand Slam events had been an inspirational example of privileging one’s own health over others’ pressure.)

Reactions to Osaka and Biles were mostly positive, which suggests, just maybe, that attitudes toward women who advocate for themselves are slowly starting to change. The enthusiasm on display in response to these athletes spoke to what felt like a substantial, long-suppressed hunger for examples of women who are unapologetic in setting boundaries. They put me in mind of the celebratory eruptions online after Representative Maxine Waters, during a House Financial Services Committee meeting about President Donald Trump’s financial relationship with Russia in 2017, became fed up with the dissembling of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and announced that she was “reclaiming my time.”

It says something that the majority of the women who come to mind when I think of those who have said no are women of color. Cooper noted the same thing (her list of “no” heroines includes Ida B. Wells, Pauli Murray, and Parks), so I asked her why she thought women of color dominated our lists. Social movements, she said, “are born in these moments of defiance—those moments where someone stands up and says, ‘Actually, nah.’”

Melissa Harris-Perry, the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University and the host of WNYC’S The Takeaway, was raised in a household with a Black father and what she describes as a “second-wave white feminist mom” who encouraged her to assert her preferences: no, yes, and everything in between. Without no, Harris-Perry told me, she would not have exited an abusive first marriage, or professional circumstances that became intolerable. “The single best public example is my leaving MSNBC,” she said. (Harris-Perry hosted a popular show on the cable news network from 2013 to 2016.) “That was a pretty strong no. Divorcing my first husband was also a pretty strong no. But those nos did not come without consequences, and really long-lasting, brutal ones. And I guess more than anything, when I think about the things I worry about when we talk about and write about women and girls who say no is: We shouldn’t pretend that if only we could muster the courage to do it, there will be applause, because most often there won’t be. Because people hate it. It is completely possible that if you say no you won’t get the chance to say yes. And so that makes the calculation different for us than it does for boys.”

Harris-Perry is also quick to stress the ways in which, for many women, no can be dangerous—an incitement to violence. And for those who have survived sexual harassment or assault, the notion that they should simply have said no, or said it louder, or said it differently, adds insult to injury. “So many women living in a rape-culture world experience their nos as irrelevant,” Harris-Perry told me. “For so many of us who are survivors, one of the very first questions we are asked is ‘Did you say no?’”

Harris-Perry remembers her time working as a student assistant to Maya Angelou, who had perfected the art of saying no to people and strangers who felt comfortable addressing her by her first name. “I was often there when people of means and of power would call her Maya and she would be like, Nope. She was not playing about it. She was very firm. She said, ‘No, dear, we do not know one another; you will show me the respect of Dr. Angelou.’ ‘Keeping your first name to yourself is very important,’ she’d say.”

Harris continued, “One of my favorite ways she would say no was people would come up, and she’d be signing books, and they’d say, ‘Dr. Angelou, can I pose for a picture with you?’ And she’d say, ‘We’re not going to have that opportunity today.’”

I am somewhat chastened to admit that, during the process of working on this story, I came to the conclusion that I am horrible at no. My editor had asked if I could include some thoughts about how I’ve gone about cultivating the habit of saying no, and as I thought about it, I realized that I haven’t. At all. Though I had talked a big game at Emma Willard—and let’s be clear, I believed (and still believe) everything that I said that day—when push comes to shove, I’ve had a hell of a time summoning the strength to say no. Unlearning a fear of no has in fact been a struggle my entire adult life, one that I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly successful at. The trouble I have saying no has led me into—and kept me stuck in—bad relationships, toxic workplaces, and a host of other difficult circumstances. It has been easier, sometimes, to assent to situations—to, as my therapist calls it, “submit and attach”—than to summon the gumption necessary, or to feel I have the privilege necessary, to walk away.

So I decided to seek advice from my friend Rebecca Traister, a writer on feminism and politics who is inundated with more requests for her time than almost anyone else I know. When I called her, she was in the midst of writing two magazine features while moving her family 300 miles to a new city. She told me she had no advice to give me, because “there’s no example of me saying no, recently.”

“I have a terrible time, an incredibly hard time saying no,” she said. “I have a laundry list of issues I can intellectually recognize but that I cannot get rid of in myself: a need to please; a drive to make everyone else’s life easier; the feeling that every request is an opportunity and if I turn it down I’ll never have another opportunity, which I think is the scarcity mentality; the absolute fear of having a reputation as uncooperative.” But when Rebecca succumbs to such fears and fails to say no, “other things suffer, mostly my mental and emotional health.”

As we talked, Rebecca became quite animated, as if she’d needed to get this off her chest for a while. I asked her why she didn’t say no to my request to speak with her. “You’re my friend,” she answered. “But I also want to say that, when you’re a person who says yes too much, people can smell it on you.” It’s like an animal instinct, she said: People can sense that she has a hard time saying no, “and if they just push it three more times, I eventually cave and say yes … And I’m like, ‘This has taken me more time to say no than if I’d just said yes and done the damn thing.’”

She continued: “Women are encouraged to be accommodating. But the thing that sucks is, the more accommodating I am, the more the base-level expectation is that I will be accommodating! And if I’m not, the negative consequences are swift and strong.”

Is there anything she feels comfortable saying no to? “One thing I do say no to often is doing cable-news hits on subjects I’m not an expert on. And I’ve had multiple bookers say, ‘Rebecca, the guys never say no, even if they don’t know what they’re talking about.’”

The expectation that women say yes extracts a price on us as individuals but also, Dolly Chugh says, on society as a whole. If overburdened women are burning out from saying yes too often, that’s bad for their employers and for the economy, and when women are too accommodating, stereotyped gender roles harden both at work and at home. On an individual level, I suspect that despite my fears of being overassertive, or of being heard to say no too loudly (or too aggressively or too often), the greater danger may come from saying it too quietly (or too infrequently or not saying it at all). Maybe, as Brittney Cooper puts it, what’s needed is a broader politics around no. “If we began to respect women’s nos in the workplace and in social interactions,” she told me, “maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to respect them in intimate situations.”

Asking that others respect our nos, of course, first requires that we respect ourselves—we need to give ourselves the permission to say no in the first place. Which is why, when my editor asked me to close this article with some personal thoughts, my first impulse was to say sure when what I really wanted to say was no. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate his suggestions to get more personal—I did. But I found them unnecessary for what I am trying to accomplish with this piece, which, I hope, is to make a call to arms for Brittney Cooper’s broader politics of no.

I want to end with a take on no from 1961 that is still unsurpassed and still, sadly, on point. A young Joan Didion was then working for Vogue, and in her essay “On Self Respect,” she admonished a culture that valued women not for their opinions or ambitions but for what she called “that genius for accommodation more often seen in women than in men.” “On Self Respect” exhorted women to jettison the idea that denying ourselves our own desires constitutes some form of exalted selflessness.

“We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gift for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give,” she wrote.

Of course we will play Francesca to Paolo, Brett Ashley to Jake, Helen Keller to anyone’s Annie Sullivan: no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we can not but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the necessity of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us … To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.