Well behaved women seldom make history.
That was true for Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a professor of the history of women and early America here at Harvard, who coined the term in an early 1976 paper on women in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a short aside within the whole of the paper, not nearly the thesis or its prominent focus, yet this adage skyrocketed in pop culture and was referenced in multiplicative ways that validated feminine activism and incentivized women to fight against the mold of the timid, submissive stereotype projected onto them. It quickly became the rallying cry for women everywhere. It has most recently been used in this regard during the Women’s March this past January, where millions of women around the world paraded this quote on signs. They called out the Trump administration on its actions during the past election cycle, reminding the world that women’s rights are human rights and should be treated as such.
It was true for Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, for Rosa Parks, for Susan B. Anthony, for Sonia Sotomayor, for the millions of women who took a stand at the Women’s March, and many more. Yet the actions of these women, despite their strength and valiant attempts to defend causes they believe in, continue to be dragged through the mud.
When Rosa Parks courageously challenged Jim Crow laws by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, she was arrested. When Susan B. Anthony tried to deliver speeches on the need for suffrage and tried to vote, she was denied a lectern and arrested. When Sonia Sotomayor expressed pride in her origins and culture—a Latina woman from a low-income family—she was met with comments calling her a “reverse racist” and urging the withdrawal of her nomination for the Supreme Court. All of these powerful women in history have had to endure different degrees of injustice to simply advocate for their beliefs and identities.
Where is the line drawn between characterizing a women as strong for standing up for herself versus characterizing her as something to arrest, ill-behaved—even nasty?
The most recent traces in the sand were birthed out of the recent presidential election. Nicholas Kristof, a lauded New York Times columnist, sat down with Hillary Clinton and discussed what lead to her ultimate demise on the campaign trail. In a totally ad hoc and out-of character response, Clinton underlined her downfalls bluntly: “Certainly misogyny played a role in it. That just had to be admitted.” While certain news sources may disagree, it is inarguably true that throughout her candidacy for the presidency, Clinton was subjected to a plethora of insults aimed at undermining her qualifications for the position due to her gender. Many of these came from President Trump, a man notorious for his insults on Twitter and his particularly licentious and salacious comments towards women. He also labeled Clinton “the devil” and, most infamously, a “nasty woman”.
Social media took this latter remark and ran with it. It was the ultimate modern rendition of Ulrich’s original rallying cry and spread rampantly through pop culture. It quickly became the center of a solidarity movement for women who felt affected by the then-president-elect’s misogynistic retorts. Women branded themselves with this, their hopes following in the footsteps of Ulrich’s adage—to stand up for themselves and their beliefs, to ignore those who underestimated their strength simply because of their gender, and to be as “ill-behaved” and as “nasty” as necessary.
This disgusting rhetoric and behavior towards women cannot simply be chalked up to historical blunders or a counterargument to political correctness. We as a society cannot blanket ourselves under the guise of change, pretending that we have evolved from such neanderthalian actions against women and that we have given women and men the equal platform they deserve. Although these aspirations are admirable, we must not be complacent with the system and mislabel any societal advance as “good enough,” easing our quest for equality; progress has occurred, yes, but haltingly so. The struggle to keep strong women from being undermined due to their sex is not over.
Well behaved women seldom make history—this much was true for a long time. But nasty women will and always have had a hand in shaping the world we live in, and we must never forget this.
Jessenia N. Class ’20 is a Crimson editorial editor in Quincy House.
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