“Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History”: A Rant

Culture, Family Issues, History, Worldviews — By on September 6, 2012 at 7:00 am

I have a condition. Whenever I see one particular bumper-sticker, my skin starts to crawl. My lips and fingers itch and ache to burst with rational objection. I may need a doctor’s note to excuse me from ever again reading those six words. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll bare my biases – I’m on the feminist side of things. I don’t consider motherhood and marriage to be necessary goals in my life and my walk with God. I tend toward what Biola-folk call egalitarianism; I qualify terms like “obey” when used to describe relationships between humans. All the same, I think suggesting that motherhood and marriage and marital obedience are for second-tier women – in short, the statement “Well-behaved women rarely make history” – isn’t a healthy view.

Let’s take this in two parts:

“Well-Behaved Women”

In proper accordance with the genre bumper sticker, the slogan doesn’t define the terms. I tentatively submit – based on the implication of the whole phrase – that “well-behaved women” could be operationalized as “women who act as society recommends”.

I’m aware of a hazard here; since I’m about to challenge this statement, it’s problematic that I’m developing the definition for it. This could easily become a straw-man argument, where I’m playing both sides – “You’re saying this, and it’s wrong!” However, considering the slogan’s overall implication, I can think of few likely interpretations that would be unrelated to “women who act as society recommends”. I could be wrong. Take it or leave it.

“Rarely Make History”

From a feminist standpoint, one could argue that history as taught in schools is a man-made patchwork of selected true events (and don’t read that as “human-made”). In this definition, making your way into the history books is an arbitrary fact having less to do with whether you did something significant than with whether you fit into the story that men in power want to tell. By contracting the “go-make-history” infection, the bumper sticker slogan – despite its attempt to cast off patriarchal control – is really striving to fit into a masculine system. So why don’t we come up with a more grounded definition of significance?

Even if you don’t buy the idea that history books are arbitrary patriarchal constructions, it’s still hard to defend the slogan’s assumption that getting in the history books is intrinsically good. Atrocities make history. The slogan operates on the understanding that there is some intrinsic value to “making history”. I doubt that value. I wonder if women (with our comparative absence from history books) might be able to provide medicine to this potentially unhealthy way of viewing significance if we weren’t busying ourselves playing the boy’s games by their rules. The fact is, well-behaved men also rarely get into history books. As a rule, people rarely “make history”. Maybe women who don’t bother with the silliness of getting into the books could have some wisdom to offer on what makes the majority of  human lives significant.

If one challenges the idea of history as “stuff-in-a-book” – if history is, instead, the actual story of humanity told through the continuing growth and flourishing of the race – well-behaved women have made a lot of history. The real history of the world has mothers and wives and “well-behaved women” as intricately involved as rebellious women, well-behaved men, and rebellious men. These people raised people, loved people, helped, created, aided, wrote, lived, loved, healed. Did women who obeyed their husbands have less of a role in the grand dance of human history than did women who went their own way? Was Alexandra Romanov less important than Joan of Arc? Did either of them really, truly live more than the other? I’m not saying all women must behave as society recommends; I’m just saying that those who do shouldn’t be treated as less significant. Perhaps society’s recommendations coincided with their own desires.

Lastly, just to put the nail in the coffin, a good number of the best-known woman in history books were rather “well-behaved.” Mary the mother of Christ, Eleanor Roosevelt, Queen Victoria, Mother Theresa.

So, do well-behaved women rarely make it into the history books? No.

Is it a failure if they don’t? No.

Do they lack significant contributions to human flourishing? No.

Is this slogan tacitly buying into the worldview it’s fighting? Yep.

Is there any aspect of this bumper sticker that stands up to healthy critique?

Image via Flickr.


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  • http://www.facebook.com/carmen.johnson.5891 Carmen Johnson

    thanks

  • christthetao

    Of course, people in generally rarely make history, at least not of the kind that gets read by human beings. After all, if a standard world history book is 500 pages long, and it mentioned 8 unique persons per page, that’s an optimistic 4000 human beings.
    100 billion people have lived in the past 2000 years. Making the odds of getting into a standard world history text one in 25 million, male or female.
    A few poorly-behaved women do, indeed, overcome these odds: Jezebaal, Wu Zetian, who almost overthrew China’s greatest empire and had the bad habit of murdering her kids, the Empress Dowager, who allowed China to decline, spending navy moneys on the Summer Palace, Marie Antoinette.
    If spicing up a dull history text book is your goal in life, and you’re willing to make life miserable for thousands, and probably die young, for a one-in-millions chance to do so, go for it, girl.

  • BenFE8

    The “well-behaved woman” applies to women who are those ‘seen but not heard’; who keep their mouths shut and are subserviant to their husband; who defer to others instead of standing up for herself; who lets others do and she’s told to do.
    IOW – a doormat.

    A real woman stands on her own 2 feet and speaks for herself. She does NOT EVER let someone tell her how to think, what to feel, what to do. She has a brain and she uses it to the best of her ability.
    IOW, she is NOT a doormat.

  • Katherine

    It fascinates me, as a woman, to read this reply from someone whose name – Ben – indicates that he is probably a man. At the same time as you verbally “uphold” the need for women to stand on our own two feet and “NOT EVER let someone tell her how to think,” you polemically assault this woman’s text’s subtleties and ignore literally every word she has written after the title; in fact, you appear to tell her what to think, in your own self-defeating move.

    Your argument is poorly executed. I almost wrote that this is one of the many reasons feminism doesn’t work, but that would be an insult to a philosophy for which I have some shred of respect.