“Well-behaved women seldom make history”

Looking at Harvard’s courses in women’s studies may lead you eventually to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a very distinguished feminist historian at Harvard, who invented the famous phrase used as a title above.  It turns out that she has recently published a book of the same name.  I haven’t yet read the book, but I’m going to order it once I can convince Amazon.com that I am indeed the same person as I was when I last ordered a book from them.  Still, there are two tangential observations I can make:

1.  Of course the pressures on women to be well-behaved and do as one is told are enormous.  A lot of the pressures are obvious in every day life, since being well-behaved is heavily reinforced.  Inside even some feminists there’s a very well-behaved little girl who too often gets out.  And, of course, if you do behave in ways others see as  behaving badly, all hell can break loose.  It can get very, very nasty indeed. 

So what do we do?  Do you have any ideas?  Or perhaps you have a confirming story?  Or a tale to tell about finding the nice little girl had taken you over?  Is the strong need to be nice somewhat ethnic?  Has the culture of strong women in some communities made not being nice easier?

2.  And then there’s the book’s Amazon.com site.  Sites about feminist books can be painful to read.  This one has a puzzling review from the Washington Post by Michael Dirda.  He asserts on the one hand that

Despite many virtues, Ulrich’s book nonetheless often feels less like history than ancient history. A lot in its pages will be familiar to readers. Colleges have been offering courses in women’s studies for decades now. That battle is won. …

Still, as Ulrich notes again and again, history isn’t simply what happened in the past; it is what later generations choose to remember. And we do need to remember how it was.   Ulrich quotes historian Sara Evans: “It is startling to realize that in the early 1960s married women could not borrow money in their own names, professional and graduate schools regularly imposed quotas of 5-10 percent or even less on the numbers of women they would admit …

So it looks as though he thinks all this stuff is in the past.  So why end the piece with

Sometimes, we really do make a little progress — even when there’s still a long way to go.

And let’s note that it is often still perfectly legal to pay women less for exactly the same job; you just can’t say that’s what you are doing.  Still, the review has a line we would do well to remember:

Despite her fervor and personal convictions, Ulrich never forgets that she is a scholar as well as a woman.

She is always well-behaved?

15 thoughts on ““Well-behaved women seldom make history”

  1. OK, one story: At the Chancellor’s house there was a meeting for some women faculty and prominent women in the community. The provost was praising the university for having over 50% female students and I said, as nicely as possibly (!), that it would be good if the university had some women in leadership positions, so the female students didn’t continually get the message that women belong in the second rank. The ensuing discussion got heated and without the head of women’s studies there, my support was non-existent. A certain height was reached when the female head of the local Chamber of Commerce said “Well, instead of complaining about the university, you and other women faculty should work on yourselves if you want to be leaders.”

    My university is in a Red State, in case you are wondering. To give the Chancellor credit, I know I, along with some other women faculty, were asked to such a gathering because we’ll say some things that other people are just thinking. But this time others backed out at the last minute, and I’m not sure I’ll put myself through that again.

  2. his review is a walking contradiction. it feels like a few recycled reviews pasted together in hopes of it working out. i wonder if he read it all the way through.

    definitely going to put that book on my goodreads list. :)

  3. One reader’s comments are also puzzling. She’s chided for focusing on white Western women, but at least two chapters are about non-white or non-Western women, at least in fairly substantial part.

  4. I think the well behaved thing has alot to do with the society, I was taught that not speaking on my own behalf or acting on my behalf was misbehaving. I am actually working on just this topic at the moment but dealing with womens responses to poverty and having to do specifically with activism, I am collecting narratives for a documentary. It is both easier and harder in poverty to just be nice, you can lose what little necissities are available for acting outside of dominant structures, but at the same time you will never get anywhere working within them. There is also the distinction between being direct and indirect, directness often leads those in the dominant structure to say we are not polite.
    Im presenting the paper at CSWIp, the project came about because I just kept finding books saying that women from backgrounds of working class and poverty are rarely involved in activism outside of the workplace and just kept thinking back to my mom with her pickets signs everywhere, grocery store, welfare office, housing dept, schools.
    So I guess it depends on how one defines well behaved, the direct indirect opposition really seems to me to be central to it, I always think indirectness is just lying but am often sanctioned, without caring, for being direct.
    Both Mary Childers and Violette Leduc take this issue at great length, and to quote Childers, I would rather be truthful than polite, even if it makes others uncomfortable.

  5. ilovefanon: I think the distinction of direct vs. indirect you make is very important since as women we tend to speak more indirectly when we’re trying to get something for ourselves. This can be so easily ignored, both intentionally and unintentionally. Will your paper be available online somewhere? It sounds interesting…

    Can anybody point me toward analyses, preferably from a psychological perspective, on internalized oppression? I think that’s what’s going on: As a woman, I have been so deeply trained to always be polite and well-behaved I have trouble standing up for myself, to set boundaries. That’s internalized sexism.

  6. Rachel, I think looking at the psych literature is fraught with dangers, if you have any inclination to believe what you read. I’d be inclined to look at theories of oppression and its internalization which are not directly, or at least not solely, about women. Racial oppression or disability oppression might be good places to look. I found the name of the disability activist/author, James I. Charlton, on Amazon.com and though I know little about his specific field, what he had to say seemed to me the best of the books I was skimming through. (Bless Amazon.com for making it possible to search through many books by phrases.)

    Few people think that disabled people or those racially oppressed have internalized it becauseis of:
    (a) not having the right loving relationships in infancy;
    (b) getting a big sexual kick out of dominant men;
    and so on.

    Cognitive Science is making us increasingly aware of the very huge impact group membership can have on us and that impact is pretty independent of infancy, idiosyncratic desires and so on. One thing Charlton stresses is that we have to look at what in the structures of the society are holding the oppression in place.

    Ilovefanon, Let me mention also that I was a member of a group getting organized that also had an industrial psychologist in it; he gave us all one of the standard organizational tests that re supposed to help you figure out how to work together. I recently found it and was startled to see that it had a sections that was supposed to measure directness vs. indirectness. The most direct was one and the most indirect was 99. I scored a 1.

    Now that’s just unacceptable socially in women and I certainly received a lot of harsh lessons about how unlovable that could make you. But rather than pursue that, I was to say that it seems to me one has to consider what effect one wants to have on other people. Do we want to speak just to say something or do we want to affect others’ beliefs and actions? If you feel your most important goal is to voice your opinion (and I am sure this is some times the best thing one can do), then simply expressing it may be the right thing to do. At a certain point, you just have to say “You are wrong, your choice is going to be destructive and mean that such and such won’t happen.” But if your goal is to make such-and-such happen, then you may be much better advised to say something like, “Before we decide, let’s look at what we are agreed on and what we think are the most important constituencies we have to consider.”

    I think that kind of indirection is not lying; it does direct attention to another part of the discussion where one might be more effective. I hope this does sound condescendingly obvious or, alternatively, false.

    I’d worry a bit for you that perhaps because what you want to say is so different you are stressing the saying of it. I suspect you are not really drawing people into your point of view, but of course I don’t know that’s true. If its true, it is really too bad.

  7. Experiences like jj’s described in comment #1 are being shared elsehwere today – on another Tierney blog. (The recent post “Shame, Shame Shame on the New York Times” responded to the first part of an ongoing discussion about sex bias in the sciences.)

    Things have heated up again there with another chapter; many women (and some men) making observations like those shared on this post. Others – not so much.


    Some of the comments are nothing short of mind boggling. And it appears there is more in store: part III focusing on chemistry is slated for next week. Oh joy.

  8. JJ & Rachel
    There is a woman at my grad school who works alot with indirect vs. direct language. She teaches a good part of the 2 days of orientation we get before we start teaching as grad students. She, as I, look at indirectness as a function of economic status. The point she is trying to make the entire second afternoon is that much of the time those from deprived backgrounds tend to be much more direct, she directs it at the grad students as most are overprivileged, at least at my school and i would tend to say in most because one doesnt generally get out fo the ghetto to grad school. I could send you her email privately if you wish, she has written alot about it.
    Maureen Hourigan has a book, you can read it free as an ebook, about literacy, race, and social class. It is a really good book, I am not just saying that because she was one of my favorite profs as an undergrad, she goes through the literature about diversity and spends much time on direct vs indirect speech.
    As for psychology I, of course, go with Fanon. In Black Skin White Masks he gives a long account of speech, In The Wretched of the Earth he is examining the psychology of oppression, it is the entire book. I am actually looking for other psychological accounts myself so if you come upon any I would be quite grateful to read them as well.
    Rachel, my work wont be available online until I am finished collecting the narratives for the documentary but when i finish my conference paper I would be happy to share it with you through email.
    AWW IO psych, one of the great horrors of my undergrad years!!! JUst remember that the way the questions are phrased and the choices that are allowed completely shape the score.
    Mary Childers also gives a great account of the direct vs indirect view in Welfare Brat. It really is hard to learn the other side if you have been socialized to one specifically. I still have much trouble discerning meaning in speech that is very indirect. I think that it is one of the hardest things to overcome in learning to interact with a different social class, i am accused of being mean and i respond with accusals of evasiveness, it is just hard to get used to hearing things from the other side and seems to cause many of the conflicts I have had. Actually Zora Neale Hurston also gives a good account of her troubles with it in her biography, Dust Tracks on a Dirt Road. I am moving right now and so dont have many references readily available, just those that stick in my head but I am sure I could find psych refs easily while I unpack, it was my undergrad degree and what I am returning to, well kind of, after I finish this degree.
    As for myself I am both claiming the right to a voice and getting points across, I think anyway! I have only spoken at 3 conferences but I know that I have gotten my point across, but, at 2 of them, the majority of those there do very much the same kind of work as I. I guess I will see when I again step into completely unknown audiences in the fall.

  9. I had the (female) head of our institution tell me that the best way to advance the inequities in science and engineering is for young people like me to keep their heads down and mouths shut and stay quiet until they have reached distinction and only THEN should they speak up. It sounds to me a recipe for disaster, not to mention slow to no change for another thirty or so years!

  10. NFAH: that’s a good case of someone aware of the problem and clueless about solving it. It can be irritating to find men assuming that of course all you have to do is ask some woman how to do it, or get some woman to review the file.

    Knowledge about solutions can be quite specialized and we’re as subject to bias as the guys.

  11. NFAH
    The so called advice I ALWAYS get at grad school is to never write or present anything feminist, particularly nothing to do with hip hop philosophy or Latina feminism, until I am tenured somewhere. Well mostly the advice I get is that since I am so worried about poverty is that i need to be in Urban Studies altogether lol. Luckily for me I am not good at listening since every conference presentation I have given so far and am on schedules to give and my book chapters ALL have nothing to do with much else, I have used Tupac Shakur, Fanon, Maria Lugones, Mariana Ortega, and Chela Sandoval in every single one!
    No prob with the author thing! I read constantly and am quite isolated here so almost ALL I do is read.
    It is actually so nice to have others to think with on here while all of my friends are away for the summer!

  12. While a misbehaved man is a brute, an oaf, a testosterone yelp for attention, etc. Ralph Cramden died for our sins.

  13. Of course, the classic examples of men who decided not to behave well include Ghandi, Mandella, Martin Luther King, George Washington. These are hardly testoterone yelps for attention.

    It’s about time we celebrated similar examples for women and encourage them/us to dream of feats of greatness. It is a HUGE mistake to think that involves denigrating men. I’m not sure why you do think this, but let me encourage you to re-examine your views.

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