Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What's that about well-behaved women?

by Shannon Mercer

During the course of one of my weekly e-mail purge sessions, a recent message from my Aunt caught my eye. Below her lengthy description of the bird-feed that she had just made from scratch, there was a quote:

“Well-behaved women seldom make history”

I’d seen the quote before on various myspace profiles, but I’d never given it any thought. This time, there was something I couldn’t put my finger on; something that was bugging the hell out of me.

Perhaps what threw me off was the fact that my 50-year-old aunt had suddenly decided to begin misbehaving, and perhaps I was just upset because the quote wasn’t attributed to anyone and my Princeton-honor-code-bound conscience decided to step in. Despite the viability of my last two suggestions, the real problem I had with this quote was with the assumptions that have to be made in order to find it even marginally inspiring.


1) Women who misbehave have historically…well…made history

2) A woman MUST misbehave in order to be important

3) Women who are well-behaved haven’t made history

Ok, first of all, I need to address this word “behave”. What does it mean to misbehave? And…let’s be honest…does this quote rely on sexual connotations attributed to “female behavior”? I picture a sensual, dark-haired woman, let’s say Mata Hari, staring deeply into a French Officer’s eyes, thinking, “Well-behaved women seldom make history, banzaiii!”. The originator of this pearl-o-wisdom was obviously not talking about a woman in 1887 who, in rebellion against her father, chose to burp at the dinner table. So what was this person implying?

I disagree with the idea that a woman must work against the system in order to succeed. I am a (fairly) well-behaved woman and it’s gotten me pretty far in life. Am I supposed to understand that, despite my success, I won’t get much farther? Well, this is a glass ceiling I never expected to hit! Why can’t I have it both ways? I want to conform to socially acceptable behavior AND I want to change the world. Those are not unreasonable aspirations.

So, after some research (approximately 0.29 seconds on google) I uncovered the origins of this quote: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and a professor of American History at Harvard University coined this phrase in the 1970’s. Ulrich explained the meaning of the quote (and the book she was in the process of writing around the time of this lecture) to the Loyola University newspaper “Loyola Today”.

She says:

“If you want to make a difference in the world, you can't worry too much about what other people think”

This is true. I agree with this, but giving these instructions explicitly to women in a quote that has somehow endured for 40 years is a bit marginalizing, dontcha think? In a way, saying that ‘women who misbehave make history’ creates a dichotomy in the perception of female behavior; a woman can be one of two things: completely out of control or totally compliant.

Ulrich makes it very clear that this was not her intention, “ ‘Are empowered women wild women? No, that's an old idea’ Ulrich warned that we run the risk of dichotomizing women of history ‘into bores and renegades who are going out there to save the world’ ” (Loyola Today). She says that her goal is not to “lament these women in their oppression…but to give them history. Serious history gets beyond good and bad”.

The clarification of her point of view makes things slightly different, but the fact that this slogan has become, as the Loyola Today deemed it “a universal slogan for independent women across the globe”, is something I find hard to explain.

I can understand the appeal it carries as a mantra of sorts. Misbehaving is dangerous and dangerous is exciting. Women want to be dangerous and exciting and moreover, this dangerous and exciting behavior leads to importance. But at a certain point this becomes an excuse rather than a statement of historical observation.

Does the prospect of historic immortality justify disobedience? No, only if the disobedience leads to a greater obedience to the values of “good” and “right”. Example: Rosa Parks

No one should care about “what other people think” when they are standing up for what they believe in. And not EVERYONE in history misbehaved in order to be remembered. None of this is specific to women and to those who find the memory of delinquent spies and harlots inspiring, fine. But don’t hold me to those standards...and if you do, well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to try for some fire code violations every once in a while. I’ll keep you posted.


Shannon Mercer does not intend to violate any fire code, be it of the University or enforced by the Princeton Borough. Thank you for your patience.


At April 22, 2009 at 11:50 AM , Anonymous Dan said...


I agree that "None of this is specific to women". I prefer Harry Millner's version:

"All progress occurs because people dare to be different."

Or George Bernard Shaw:

"Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people."

At April 22, 2009 at 12:38 PM , Blogger LSG said...

I like those quotes, Dan!

The part I see as applying especially to women is the adjective "well-behaved" -- it seem like a loaded term to me, suggesting the infantilization of women (it's normally children who are told to "behave," right?) and the fact that standards of behavior for women tend to be stricter (and more oppressive) than for men. I didn't read this as "women will make an impact on the world if they dare to be different!" I originally read it to be a criticism of culture, not women -- given the rigid and stifling standards of female behavior that have reigned throughout much of history, being "well-behaved" gives a woman no latitude to have an impact on the world because she's too busy never contradicting, making sure her house is sparkling clean, attending to her appearance, avoiding rudeness at all costs,"not making a scene" and so on. Fortunately, I think that's much less true for us than it is for our mothers and grandmothers, though some aspects of that "well-behaved" construct linger.

I read Ulrich's book a couple of years ago, and I seem to remember that she describes first writing the quote to mean something entirely different -- that well-behaved women didn't get historical credit for the things they did. It was in the context of well-behaved Puritan women, I believe, and how their writings, their diaries and letters, have been passed over by scholars even though they could be rich sources of information. I thought that was an interesting angle.

At April 22, 2009 at 9:20 PM , Anonymous AC said...

The other question is why is it bad not to make history? The vast majority of people, and an even greater majority of happy people, do not make history.


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