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"Shyness ... touches all our lives in some way. What we each thought was our own secret hang-up is actually shared by an incredibly large number of people. And we can take great comfort in knowing that we are not alone in our suffering." This statement, made by American psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo in the late 1970s, signaled the discovery of adult shyness as a serious and wide-ranging social problem in the United States, one that had previously escaped the detection of the medical community and the media. (1) The response was swift: professionals and non-professionals alike offered the shy a number of "cures," including social skills training, group therapy sessions, self-help, and, more recently, drugs such as Prozac and Paxil. (2) What was notable about these efforts was that they were, and continue to be, directed at white middle-class women, as well as white middle-class men. Traditionally, shyness had been considered a problem only when white middle-class men suffered from it; for white middle-class women, shyness was a "normal" aspect of femininity, a performative demonstration of their subordinate position in the gender hierarchy. (3) In the mid-nineteenth century, for example, the "Cult of True Womanhood" celebrated privileged white women's shyness and timidity as symbols of sexual purity and submissiveness to male authority. (4) Although this ideology was challenged in the early twentieth century by the more independent and sexually expressive "New Woman," (5) at mid-century, shyness remained a powerful symbol of female deference, particularly within the context of heterosexual relationships, where it provided ideological support for the suppression of middle-class white women's emotional needs and desires in favor of men's. Yet in the late 1970s, this tradition was turned on its head, so that "timidity and unassertiveness" were now regarded as "just as healthy for the average young female as ... a thrice-daily dose of cyanide." (6)

March 22
Journal of Social History

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