Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. This saying is from an obscure scholarly article Ulrich published years ago and has appeared on T-shirts and bumper stickers over the years. It caught my eye recently...as the title of a book in which Ulrich tries to explore the topic in greater depth (Vintage Press, 2008). I've not read the book, but apparently it focuses on three prominent women in history plus shorter anecdotes about other women who've made contributions to society, but remain relatively unknown.
Anyway, seeing Ulrich's statement made me think about the pressures on girls and women to be "well-behaved". What do I mean by this?
Men are expected to misbehave (at least occasionally) and are quickly forgiven; we even have phrases that acknowledge this expectation: "boys will be boys". Boys and men can be rowdy, aggressive, impolite, arrogant, sloppy, etc., and no one holds it against them. They may be shameless self-promoters, bragging about their accomplishments, no matter how minor. It's in their nature. We forgive them...and even find their misadventures endearing.
Women, on the other hand, are pressured to "behave well" under all circumstances. I'm not talking here about misbehavior of the type depicted in spring-break videos, e.g., "Girls Behaving Badly", but about women who speak up when faced with sexism or other unfair treatment, who don't remain quiet when their contributions are overlooked in favor of a male colleague's, who don't politely wait for someone to acknowledge them or their accomplishments, or who even fight back when treated inappropriately.
As I've described in previous posts, women of my generation (growing up in the 50's and 60's) were held to a certain standard of behavior (and career choices). We were expected to be modest, quiet, polite, submissive, and well-groomed at all times. A single indiscretion could have long-lasting repercussions.
I don't think things have changed that much. Yes, women can now participate in activities and have rights that were not ours in the past, but we are still bombarded with advertisements and images of what is expected of girls and women...both physically and behaviorally. Much of this information is internalized early in our development, and we willingly police ourselves to conform to what is apparently expected of us as females.
Those of us working in a traditionally male profession find ourselves in a Catch-22 situation. If we behave modestly and politely, our work is overlooked, and recognition goes to those who are not similarly burdened. If instead, we are assertive, strong-willed, independent, tenacious, out-spoken, and proud (positive attributes of our male colleagues), we risk being branded as being "difficult", "uncooperative", "stubborn", "overbearing", "angry", or (horrors) not a "team-player".
Our experiences in this regard vary dramatically among workplaces. This, I suspect, is often the reason for the very divergent experiences of women in science fields. Some laboratories are populated by supportive superiors, colleagues, and staff who view women as being equally capable as men. Other workplaces have one or more individuals who believe otherwise and can make life miserable for female scientists, especially if they happen to be successful and productive.
Sometimes I wonder if such misogynists see women (who succeed in a male-dominated field) as ill-behaved (and thus need to be reprimanded)? Girls were once taught that they should not outshine their brothers, boyfriends, or husbands. A woman should do her job... but not so well that she outperforms her male colleagues? If she succeeds by adopting behaviors acceptable in male colleagues, is she viewed as somehow violating social standards? I'm only speculating here, as it's difficult to put myself into the minds of such men (and some women) who hold a double standard.
Anyway, since this is Women's History Month, it seems appropriate to resurrect Ulrich's prediction about good behavior and its outcome...as well as a reminder of those women (Susan B. Anthony) who did "misbehave" and in so doing, garnered the rights we enjoy today.