Sunday, March 27, 2011

Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History

The title of this post is a widely-repeated statement made by a feminist historian, 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 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 well as a reminder of those women (Susan B. Anthony) who did "misbehave" and in so doing, garnered the rights we enjoy today.


Rachael said...

Thanks for this interesting piece. I think of Ulrich's argument as being about historiography rather than history. That is, she was encouraging historians to pay attention to women who had led 'ordinary' or quiet lives. In this model, history would delve into the everyday rather than focusing on the exceptional. But, as far as I know, the quote has always been taken as a call for women to stop 'behaving well' and to start drawing attention to their own needs and accomplishments. This emphasis undoubtedly results from the dynamic you describe: to 'behave well' can often lead to being overlooked.

Dr. Sneetch said...

Ahh this is a topic close to my heart since I have spent more time thinking about American brand of feminism than most women born here. I could speak volumes but I should probably save it for a post.

Love the line "Well-behaved women rarely make history." I am so not a well-behaved woman. I just can't be a gentle sweetheart and succeed in this line of work

"We were expected to be modest, quiet, polite, submissive, and well-groomed at all times. A single indiscretion could have long-lasting repercussions." So true!

caran said...

Hi!I have recently discovered your blog and I cannot tell you how happy I am.I have beaten myself over the head and telling myself that certain things happen only to me as a young woman in engineering, because I am not strong enough, not well prepared enough, etc... add any negative adjective here.
I am a social imposter, I have been a puppyengineer with a male tutor once & I also think that I suffer from the puppy face syndrome (e.g. my chances of being taken seriously as an engineer are not directly proportional to the puppy-esque face I got), & finally I can certainly say I have not been encouraged as a kid to follow any career whatsoever. In fact I remember to this day how my grandfather told me that he is only explaining things to my cousin cos he is a boy & he is the only one capable of understanding. (probably thats the same day I decided to become an engineer)

Regarding your post, I have been through the phase where I was extremely stubborn, out spoken, strong willed, etc as this is how I have always been thought to be by my mom & also it was my natural way of being.However, I have seen how negatively this affected me & how my colleagues in many situations took this very, very wrong. I have now managed to turn into the opposite & crawled into a cave & it's been almost 1 year that I sort of tried to not look for a job as an engineer.I have not given up & plan on going back, but the lack of support and the negativity have definitely taken a toll.

I know all it takes is hard work & just being a good engineer is enough in order to be accepted and treated equally. However, I think we all need that support and belief from others that we are capable no matter what.

Swamp Thing said...


Since I guess the resident bloggers aren't responding, I will, as a male wetland scientist.

1. You can NEVER give up. Wetland science, and wetland engineering in particular, are fields set up (IMO) with a slowly eroding bias toward true professional women, but a very steady and strong bias against young people - male or female. "What do you know? You're only 25 and I am 65, and last set foot in a classroom in 1968! I am clearly the superior engineer!"

That about describes my first 7-8 years of working in the field. I have spent a good part of my career as a "puppy mentor." I'm sure I did/do things wrong (since nobody ever teaches you how to be a mentor - I was trained to be a wetland scientist!), but any mentor in that position spends a good amount of time UNDOING the discouragement (word?), snide remarks, and actual bias in work assignment (i.e. "you're a don't want that site. It's nasty.") that are thrust upon young engineers & biologists, especially women (but men too). This distracts (to put it mildly) from the real task, which is to "grow" you into a competent and confident professional who is not afraid to tell others - notably older men - that you are correct about something (when you are). After all as a consulting engineer - that is your value - to know the answer and demonstrate it confidently to regulators and clients.

2. So much light is made in fem-world about how it's easy for men because "boys will be boys." Yeah, let me tell you how well THAT is tolerated in our field after about age 24. Well-behaved PEOPLE rarely make history, but rebels are frequently seeking new employment. It sucks and it's unfair. But I think that the gender gap in treatment of workers who "behave as nonconformists" is closing - at least in the places I've worked in the last 15 years.

3. I'm going to upset people with this one. There's a difference between being "well behaved" (conforming to unfair and dated gender roles in the workplace) and being "well behaved" (conforming to normal office protocols and decor). This message has been missed by some women in the wetland field, and the retribution against them is harsh, swift, and slightly unfair. Be a nonconformist by defying expectations, outperforming others on YOUR terms, and finding ways to go above and beyond - especially when it's a way the old boys wouldn't have thought of.

But please don't use the phrase "those M-F'ing data wells are bullsh***" out loud in a Federal proposal meeting, expect the Old Boys to be happy about it, and then revert to "Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History" when your supervisors discipline you for the lack of candor. C'mon, grownups are not supposed to talk like that at meetings. And yes, I was there for that!

Again to Caran - don't give up. Do it your way - whether that means meeting with your boss weekly to remind them that you have management in mind for your future, or whether it means playing it cool and waiting for the right opportunities to pop up. If you're like me, you won't play every situation right (it's impossible), but hopefully you won't regret how you handled most of them, either. I think that's an admirable goal - and you can build a strong career on it. Don't be afraid to make decisions that others (including male coworkers) are too timid to make. Don't be afraid to be wrong. Just do it!