Well-behaved women in the real world

What happens when we appreciate women without valuing them?

5 minute read
Who are we erasing when we focus only on famous women? (Illustration by Hannah Kaplan, for Broad Street Review.)
Who are we erasing when we focus only on famous women? (Illustration by Hannah Kaplan, for Broad Street Review.)

I am deeply appreciated. Strangers say it whenever they hear what I do for a living; I hear it from family members when they ask over Christmas cake how work is going; social media shouts it every spring when I get a reminder that it’s Teacher Appreciation Week (a significant date that overlaps precisely with Nurse Appreciation Week, another profession that skews highly to women). I get yearly reminders that I am appreciated in the form of free ice cream cones and 10-percent-off coupons for every corporation between home and work.

I am not valued.

Why I get up

This is not to say I’m not important. I teach during the day and care for seniors in the evenings. If you’re between the ages of 30 and 60, there’s a good chance that people like me are responsible for the well-being of your child or your parent—maybe both. There’s also a good chance those workers are holding down two jobs to keep a roof over their head, and don’t get paid sick leave.

Work that our society values is sustainable. Our society does not tolerate the idea of valuable work going undone.

And work done predominantly by women is not being valued by our society.

Because from a given perspective, “women’s work” is what I do. Professional mothering. Professional daughtering. Keeping the kids in my care safe and helping them develop their skills is my primary reason for getting out of bed at the ungodly hour of 6am. In essence, I get paid to do what women have always been expected to do for free, as part of our “natural” social roles as the center of the family. Give unto others. Respect your elders. And do it cheerfully.

“Works of heart”?

A student once bit me while I was having a conversation with Mom. I scowled and cried out in pain, and the mother chided me for my lack of patience—despite the fact that she was late for pickup and I’d stayed 15 unpaid minutes past my scheduled workday to supervise her kid. I wasn’t granted the privilege of a normal reaction, because I was supposed to be a font of smiles and snuggles, not a person.

I’m told often that both teaching and caregiving are “works of heart.” They are, but they require skill too. Teachers can meet the needs of a diverse group of people simultaneously. Nurses and their aides keep a cool head in a crisis. Stay-at-home parents know what it means to never be off the clock.

But the idea that women serve based on emotional instinct and not professionally developed skill probably accounts, in part, for the dramatic gender disparity in our leadership. When a woman rejects feminine attributes, she’s cold and unlikeable. When she embraces them, she’s dimwitted and emotional. Watch it play out in cycle after cycle of elections.

Whom do we honor?

In March, we honor the contributions that women have made to history, but in the US at least, our approach is extremely individualistic. We rightly honor the women pioneers who broached the public sphere and claimed traditionally male spaces, as well as the women activists who fought for our collective rights. But we rarely honor the achievements of large numbers of quieter women who made our culture collectively possible.

Americans love to be the first, the one-in-a-million success. Women are feminist heroes when they break through the barriers, but we’ve resigned ourselves to the idea that the barriers should be there, admitting only those who were “smart” and “worthy” enough to penetrate the boys’ clubs. If a woman doesn’t have the sense to go for big money and public glory, she deserves the low pay, long hours, and lack of structural support. After all, we’re two decades deep into a new millennium. Women can be anything they want.

Not president, of course. But anything else.

The Long Friday

It’s worth noting that the United States ranks middling to bottom among the world’s countries when it comes to gender equality. All the strides made by artists, activists, and politicians haven’t leveled the pay gap or relieved us of the second shift. Maybe it’s time for American women to go on strike. Refuse to not only do our jobs, but let the laundry go unwashed, the meals uncooked, and pack the children off to their fathers.

Tens of thousands of women in Iceland came together to do just that in 1974, with a one-day strike conducted by all working women—including homemakers—organized by a radical feminist group called the Red Stockings. Men were left to wrangle children in their offices, and stores sold out of sausages, the only meal many fathers knew how to make. The incident has since been dubbed “the Long Friday.”

Iceland, not coincidentally, is the world leader in gender equality, and has had women as both prime minister and president. Vignis Finnbogadóttir, the first of the latter, credits the strike as the genesis of her election. No country is perfect and Iceland is no exception, but it’s hard to argue that women’s work isn’t valued there.

How to make history

Credit for the phrase “well-behaved women seldom make history,” a key slogan for pop feminism, goes to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Harvard-based historian (though it has since been mistakenly attributed to figures like Marilyn Monroe or Eleanor Roosevelt). She was lamenting how women who quietly fulfill necessary yet undervalued roles don’t get their due for shaping our culture. But they certainly make history when they take the day off.

Maybe Ulrich was urging us to take a more collective view. We use those 10 percent coupons while staring down a systemic pay gap that concentrates wealth away from professions filled with women. Until that changes, we can appreciate individual women—but we do not value them.

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