Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

7 years ago
This article was written by a member of the SheKnows Community. It has not been edited, vetted or reviewed by our editorial staff, and any opinions expressed herein are the writer’s own.



I was tired from two days of thinking and talking theologically as I boarded the plane to return to Dallas. The flight attendant began the usual pre-flight schpeel, which is my sign to check out mentally.  The familiar words passed right by me until something new drew me back from my daze.  What did she say?

I looked up to see the flight attendant smiling (beaming, perhaps?) down at a female passenger who was speaking to her. She nodded and said, "That's right.  All girls!" A moderate round of applause spontaneously commenced. At least 5 or 6 women were clapping, including me. By then my brain had confirmed what my ears had heard. The pilot's name was Julie. The first officer's name was Susan. The flight attendant's name was Vanessa. That's right. It was an all female flight crew.

Suddenly revived I sat there, now beaming myself. I was so inspired, and I wanted to take in every environmental element of this amazing moment.  I was palpably aware that I was experiencing something for which many women throughout history had risked their marriages, friendships, families, health and even lives. I believed that if I blinked enough times I would see apparitions of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Virginia Woolf, Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth I, Sappho, Marie Curie and the legion of unknown sisters who have fought for the dignity and rights of women savoring the victory with me. An...all...female...crew!

I was most impressed with the fact that they were just doing their jobs. Who knows what they experienced on their way to obtaining their professional positions, or what they go through on a daily basis. Patriarchy, to be sure, infiltrates their work culture as it does every other aspect of life. Perhaps they have been and continue to be subjected to sexism and harassment ranging from subtle to blatant from co-workers and passengers alike. But on that day, on that flight one would have never known.  They simply were what they were, a flight crew charged with ushering a plane full of passengers safely from point A to point B. Oh, and they were all women doing this, which some might say makes them misbehavers.

"Well-behaved women seldom make history." When Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote this sentence in the opening paragraph of a 1976 scholarly article, she had no idea how her words would influence her own culture. As a graduate student enrolled in a seminar on early American history, Ulrich wanted to know more about ordinary colonial women, "the ones who sustained the colonies from day-to-day." During her research Ulrich stumbled upon "a succession of funeral sermons celebrating the lives of pious women," which became the subject of her first scholarly paper. Her objective was "to dig beneath the pious platitudes that both celebrated and obscured [these women's] lives." To her, the concluding sentence of the article's opening paragraph argued that these women (who clearly were not outspoken activists, brilliant scientists, self-supporting authors or never-married monarchs) were just as impactful on the course of history as their better-known sisters. Contrary to what some might assume when reading the statement out of context, Ulrich wrote it "not to lament [the pious women's] oppression, but to give them a history."*

Nineteen years later, a journalist altered the statement slightly and used it as an epigraph for her informal history of American women. Likety split, a slogan/sound bite was born. Today one can find "Well-Behaved Women Seldom (Rarely) Make History" on T-shirts, coffee mugs, tote bags, bumper stickers, posters and whatever else is a suitable surface for print or type. Beyond giving voice to previously faceless and nameless women, the statement has become a mantra of boldness for women who apply it in different ways. The common stream, notes Ulrich herself, is rebellion or misbehavior. Exactly what is misbehavior is not only in the eye of the woman, but of the beholder.

For most women, including me, "misbehaving" is not lewd, illegal, distasteful or even sinful.  It is as simple as (and yet as costly as) crossing the well-defined, deeply entrenched and strongly guarded lines of womanhood as shaped by patriarchy. A woman who breaks free from "strictures of properness, charm, sweetness and social convention"? Misfit! A daughter who dares to be true to herself and not fulfill her parents' ideals that are truly all about making them look good? Disrespectful! A mother who takes time for herself and says "no" here and there to prevent herself from being depleted by caring for children, projects, needs, groups, etc.? Inflexible! Selfish! A wife who embraces an egalitarian view of marriage and rejects traditional gender roles? Power-hungry vixen! A female politician with natural leadership ability and strong oratory skills speaking out about all types of injustice? Siren! A woman in the workforce, trying to make a way, complaining about unequal pay, the high cost of childcare and the long hours that take away time with her children? Wimpy Whiner! Add your example of "misbehaving" women here...+


The thing is, a lot of this "misbehavior" is women being who they are and fulfilling their God-given purpose. "Misbehaving" women are usually not trying to start a revolution. We're just doing what we do. So, why call women living their lives "misbehavior"? Because patriarchal fear and resistance seem to think that women's gain is patriarchy's loss; that everything is going to change; and that women will take over to the point that men are in the position in which women have been for centuries -- silenced, inferior, overlooked, ignored, etc. Heaven forbid! Better to keep those estrogen-infested vermin in their place and not risk such chaos.

I awoke from my existential bliss and knew immediately what I must do.  As Vanessa passed by, I got her attention and asked if I might take a picture of her, Julie and Susan on my way off the plane. She smiled and cocked her head to the side a little, as if to express that this was a slightly strange request that she hadn't previously encountered. Okay, she answered a little uncertainly. "I want to show my daughters," I responded. "I tell them all of the time that they can do anything that they want to do, but I want them to see what women can do."

Many of us passengers had to wait on the jetway for our luggage. While we did, our all female-crew who had transported us successfully deplaned. As they walked by, we applauded them again for a job well-done. We had arrived and were safe on the ground. That's right...an all..female...crew!

Keep on "misbehaving," ladies!

Works Cited in Marked Paragraphs
* Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

+Kidd, Sue Monk. The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A women'a Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.



Angie Mabry-Nauta
Woman, in Progress...

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