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

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.

Women, Mermaids, and Mystique: Why We Don’t Really Want to Be Part of Your World

“I want to have fins”, she sighed, gazing longingly at an advertisement for Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

I could hardly have been more relieved; for a moment I’d thought I’d walked in on every modern mother’s nightmare – a preschooler who longs to be thin.  It’s not healthy for a four year old to fret about her weight, but it is normal for today’s youngest females to love mermaids.

Believe me, I know.  I’m terrifically popular with the local 7-and-under crowd, probably because of my daughter’s absurdly well stocked play room.  I’ve watched the girls spend countless hours in mermaid-centered play—mermaid coloring pages, mermaid dolls, mermaid bath toys, mermaid movies, mermaid costumes—you name it, they love it.  The advertising industry has more than adequately cashed in on this nearly universal girlish desire for great hair paired with amphibious appendages, and it’s easy to see why girls respond so eagerly. From Disney’s Ariel to Barbie’s Merliah, today’s mermaids are young, glamorous alpha females whose beauty and courage are admired by all.  Every girl wants to be like them.

But isn’t that a little strange?  Mermaids are an odd sort of symbol.  Attach fish parts to a woman, and suddenly you have an unfailingly captivating new creature whose place in the imaginations of the next generation of wives and mothers is nearly unchallenged.  Fish parts? Really?

Mermaids have always fascinated us, though they have not always been as positively portrayed as they are in today’s children’s programs.  Tales of the unlikely creatures have captivated men and women alike since at least 1000 B.C., with myths springing from such disparate places as ancient Assyria and 14th century Warsaw.

As usual, J.K. Rowling got her mythology right when she described the merfolk who live in the water near Hogwarts:

“The merpeople had greyish skins and long, wild, dark green hair. Their eyes were yellow, as were their broken teeth, and they wore thick ropes of pebbles around their necks. They leered at Harry as he swam past; one or two of them emerged from their caves to watch him better, their powerful, silver fishtails beating the water, spears clutched in their hands.” (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, p. 432)

Mermaids have usually been depicted as dangerous, unlucky creatures whose appearance bodes ill.  They are, traditionally, a far cry from Ariel or Mermaid Dora.  Many are even ugly.  How on earth did we make the jump from sirens to sweethearts?  And what is it about the image that has captivated the imaginations of so many men and women for so many centuries?

The most important source of modern western conceptions of merfolk is Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. This 19th century tale describes a young mermaid’s desperate attempts to gain an immortal soul and true love in one fell swoop.  Though her beloved Prince marries someone else and the mermaid commits suicide, she is ultimately granted a sort of soul because of the good deeds she did while on land.

Ensoulment, it seems, is good for one’s image.  Especially when Disney gets involved.  Disney’s 1989 animated interpretation of Anderson’s sympathetic tale sealed the western mermaid’s fate: no longer an undead harbinger of death and destruction, today’s mermaid is a kinder, gentler being with great hair and nothing more threatening than a desire to be “part of your world.”

On the surface, it appears to be a sign of progress that the old monstrous image has been baptized into the sort of harmless plaything that delights millions.  But this is actually a sign of our regression—and it says a thing or two about the flaws in our preferred feminine archetypes.

Mermaids myths are found all over the globe, and they vary wildly.  All the stories agree, however, that the creatures have fins instead of legs, and are able to attract human men.  This attraction is necessarily unproductive, however, as men can’t live under water and sex is physically impossible for mer-women.  A mermaid has all the power that comes with being desired by men, without the need or ability to ever submit herself to that desire.  This is especially true of modern mermaids, whom I have already compared to socially dominant women.  They are beautiful, but unattainable.  A man may love a mermaid, but he can never have her.  She may enjoy being desired for as long as she likes while never having to submit to the demands that love and sexual desire require.

In a way, then, today’s mermaids are even more insidious than the fierce old sirens.  C.S. Lewis described the danger in That Hideous Strength:

The beauty of the female is the root of joy to the female as well as to the male, and it is no accident that the goddess of Love is older and stronger than the god. To desire the desiring of her own beauty is the vanity of Lilith, but to desire the enjoying of her own beauty is the obedience of Eve, and to both it is in the lover that the beloved tastes her own delightfulness.

Ancient merfolk were thought to lure men to watery graves through their songs and spells.  Though modern merwomen are, by contrast, known for being playful and affectionate, they can do just as much harm as their fiercer ancestors—and more.  Women naturally long to be admired, and it’s normal for girls to gravitate towards feminine images which inspire such admiration.  This desire for admiration must be tempered, however, by the kind of humility that Lewis describes above.

While Mermaid Dora isn’t likely to lead many young girls down the path of destruction anytime soon, the temptations contemporary mermaids embody may ultimately rob young women of the joys that come with humility and of the virtues one cultivates only through submission to something outside of oneself.  Nothing can compare to the freedom and peace this submission brings—not even fins. ‘