Monday, August 15, 2011

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

It took me quite a while to finish this book.  Not because it wasn't interesting per se, but mostly because I felt it lacked the kind of complexity that I expected from the title and her introduction.  I had certain expectations, given the fact that I had read synopses like this one:

"'They didn’t ask to be remembered,' Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Ulrich wrote in 1976 about the pious women of colonial New England. And then she added a phrase that has since gained widespread currency: 'Well-behaved women seldom make history.' Today those words appear almost everywhere—on T-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, plaques, greeting cards, and more. But what do they really mean? In this engrossing volume, Laurel Ulrich goes far beyond the slogan she inadvertently created and explores what it means to make history."

 On some level, I expected (following the introduction) that Ulrich was working to re-appropriate the phrase she had coined "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History" with a complex discussion of how women have entered the historical record, and I was hoping that she would provide multiple lenses through which to view this idea of "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History" and what it has come to mean to so many different women.  Rather, she (mostly through anecdote) provides a kind of conglomeration of various women who have, indeed, made history and the stories and events surrounding them.  In that regard, I think many women could learn a tremendous amount from this book about the different ways in which women have engaged with history and with women's rights.  I think this book could not only be educational, but could build readers' appreciation for the sacrifices, challenges, and battles that women have fought to be able to stand as equals with men.

At the same time, I was a bit disappointed.  I feel that the statement of the title is itself already lending to certain kinds of bias that Ulrich comes back to again and again in her book - the focus usually is on women not being 'well-behaved' in the moment that they are captured in a historical frame for later researchers.  That doesn't necessarily always hold true, and it is somewhat problematic that the whole idea of what is or is not 'well-behaved' never gets illuminated past the introduction (other than to suggest that not following the rules is what puts people in the light of the historical record). After reading such accounts, and especially following her summation of 1970s feminism, which concludes the book, her statement about making history with diaries and scrapbooks feels almost frivolous.  Yet, women keeping their own history and valuing their own history is, in fact, a significant part of making history at all.  When we don't value our own history enough to record it, later generations won't have much to go on.  Under those circumstances (and usually in spite of them), the writing of our own history will thus likely end up as selective as the writing of history in general.

The other issue I had with the title is that fact that there seems to be an assumption that the story is vastly different for men.  The statement "well-behaved women seldom make history" itself ignores the fact that it is not just women who aren't represented in the history, but that there is a whole world of women and men whom history has chosen to ignore, and the men we tend to remember and revere are not exactly what we might think of as 'well-behaved.'  That is, they broke the rules.  And the ones who didn't, but happen to be in the record due to perhaps a political position or otherwise where they intersect historical documentation are never remembered nor studied as much as those who were not 'well-behaved.'  The truth is that in history in general the vast majority of people (both women and men) have no history at all (of course, this doesn't negate the point that women really had/have been cut off from their own history).  This has been changing more and more, but in terms of singling out individual people on the outskirts of empires, governments, class, and power (i.e. most people), the task is nearly impossible.  In her defense, however, she was not concerned with the history of people in general and there are definitely reasons why what she says fits.  Still, a lack of discussion about what it even means to be 'well-behaved' lent the book more toward its climax of ending with a celebratory discussion of women's feminism in the 1970s and less toward what I may have expected from the title and introduction.

I have to admit, the way the ending was presented bothered me a bit.  For most of the book I really felt like she did a pretty good job of presenting small histories that really do flesh out a small part of women's history, and there were valuable insights into what it means/meant to be a woman in some vastly different places and periods.  By the end of the book, however, I felt that she fell into a discussion of 1970s feminism that has some drawbacks to it.  I noticed in our book group how many women in the group expressed feeling like the issues feminism was trying to deal with have been resolved and taken care of.  In part, this is due to Ulrich's presentation of feminism in the 1970s and what the feminist movement was really focused on at that point.  It would have been great if she had added as much complexity to the feminist movement of the 1970s as she did to some other parts of the book.  For instance, she doesn't talk about how much feminism was (for the most part) aimed at a very particular group of women (though she mentions these kinds of distinctions earlier in the book with other movements) - that is, at middle class white women.  In fact, she adds in (very briefly) other accounts that seem to suggest that there was more universality to feminist movement in the 70s than there actually was.  I do think she tried to check her bias by mentioning that there really is no unified feminist front, but her enthusiasm for some of what I consider to be the most selective (and yet taught as universal) aspects of feminism radiated through the filters she attempted to put in place.  That is all understandable, but for a book that was aimed at being pretty well rounded, it somewhat missed the point that 1970s feminism, though it accomplished several things, left many women even more isolated and alienated, and led to several common misconceptions of feminism that women (and men) still retain today.

It took me a while to get to a point in my life where I could admit to myself and to others that I am a feminist.  The negative connotations that accompany the term are so strong that people react in some very negative ways to such admissions.  Man-hating and other misconceptions crop up just from the term itself.  This is a problem.  I think that Ulrich did a good job through most of the book moving the reader away from the idea that feminism is inherently negative and alienating, but she still presents it in a way at the end that leaves out significant contributions to feminist theory that really get at the heart of some of the problems associated with 1970s feminist movement (such as Bell Hooks - what a fabulous read! - more on that later).  The result was that many women in our book group left the book with a feeling of having somehow 'arrived,' which I don't think is necessarily the case.

There were also some places where I felt that she neglected to distinguish where certain stories about women reside in the overall cultural milieu in a way that aided in the complexity of the discussion.  For instance, she mentions how "Amazons are free for the taking," meaning that stories about women warriors exist outside of their contexts in a way that completely disconnects them from history, yet she fails to talk about what this disconnection might signify, or what the ramifications might be.  For a book that is about women making history, it seems interesting that she would not further elaborate this point.  In these instances, it isn't so much about women making history, but about how they are employed in other contexts as symbols of a certain cultural milieu - something, which, in effect, ignores their actual history (which she hints at, but never actually states).  She also says that "Amazon stories exist outside time and space inside the hope of female power.  They yearn toward justice, yet acknowledge a terrible violence at the heart of that justice."  What does she mean here by justice?  From some statements she gives earlier, she seems to be suggesting that they are yearning toward the justice of equality between the sexes, yet some of the stories that she has just given seem to actually yearn toward a flip of power (i.e. of females exercising power over men).  Many of these tales don't seem to be yearning toward any kind of justice of equality, but toward retribution and punishment, a world in which women rule over men, which is exactly what certain brands of 1970s feminist theory did, and those failed pretty miserably (understandably so).  The lack of complexity surrounding this type of theme really bothered me.  There can be no forward movement for feminism without men who are also celebrated in their full capabilities and potential, where women and men are set up as equals in the vast array of human experience.  To flip the cards is not only unjust, but it is counterproductive, which is one reason why some of the Amazon stories are, in fact, so full of fury.