Friday, September 5, 2014

That whole "Well-behaved women" thing...

You've all seen the bumper stickers, T-shirts, coffee mugs.  "Well-behaved women rarely make history." And sometimes the quote is actually (correctly) printed as, "Well-behaved women seldom make history. -- Laurel Ulrich"

Confession: every time I see this, I cringe.

When I ask my students to reflect on whether this popular phrase is a useful way of thinking about women's history, their response is usually some variation on, "Kind of. But..." They point out that this can be read as a statement encouraging women, in the context of popular feminism today, that they don't have to conform to rigid gender codes -- defying the restrictive standards femininity is Good! So the mugs and tee-shirts become about empowerment. But when we actually start to think about the phrase as a notion or theory of history, some wrinkles appear. As one of my students put it, this seems to set up a troubling binary: you are either a "well-behaved" woman who will be of zero interest to "history" or you are a rebel, the kind of woman who breaks barriers and gets noticed. What about everyone who falls between? Those women and their lives and struggles aren't captured in that phrase.


My students also pointed out that the phrase skips over the more interesting question: What does it mean to be "well-behaved" and how has that changed? The premise of most academic scholarship today is that gender roles, like other social roles, are historically and culturally constructed. They change. But neither are they rigidly fixed within any historical moment. That's what makes history so complicated: everyday folk are always in the the process of negotiating and challenging the rules and boundaries and expectations of their world. Sometimes this happens in little ways that don't exactly "make" history but do make historical change, something as small and seemingly insignificant as fertility control. (As the historian Susan Klepp has argued, the biggest untold story of America in the age of Revolutions is that at some point in the late 1700s, women begun to restrict their family size, setting a host of other social and cultural and economic changes in motion. Her book, Revolutionary Conceptions is an extended exploration of how and why that came about.)

What bugs me the most about "Well-behaved women..." is the "make history" part. As it stands, that phrase just doesn't make sense in the context of the politics of women's history. The politics of women's history IS the politics of "making history."