June 29, 2008


I recently finished reading "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History" by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. I wouldn't label myself as a feminist by any streach, but I definitely found the ideas explored by this book intriguing.

She focuses mostly on three central women: Christine de Pizan, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Virgina Woolf. All women I know nearly nothing about. In the beginning she asks why it is that women who make history are judged to have "misbehaved" in some way. It's an interesting question... She talks about an unspoken history that until recent generations was largely ignored by the authors of history. The history of women has been documented in quilts, in well-swept paths, in kitchen pots, in the little notes tucked away in family Bibles. I'm not so much interested in the idea of women as oppressed by their forced domesticity (men, of course, being the problem), but I'm interested in the gaps of our collective knowledge created because women in past centuries were generally not permitted to develop their gifts. Some stories are able to peak through time, but there's a lot we could have learned from people not able to teach because they weren't able to learn themselves.

Two things I've noticed in the paper over the last few weeks have annoyed me. Firstly, Yves St. Laurent died. That in itself isn't particularly annoying, I'm sure he was great, but if I'm honest I already thought he had died. I generally don't associate brands as being people... but that's another story. In both articles I read concerning his passing, the journalists praised YSL for having librated women from the tyranny of wearing skirts. Through his innovative design and influence he (apparently single handedly) made it fashionable for women to wear pants. I'm not sure how "liberating" it is for women to be permitted to wear pants because a member of the opposing gender has determined that it is now fashionable. Is that a triumph for "womenkind"?

Secondly, on a page hidden in the bowels of the Chronicle Herald, above an advertisement for motivational speaking and flamenco dancing, there was a picture of a garbage dump. Between two piles of trash there was a path on which a little boy was walking with a grocery bag, apparently sorting through some garbage. On the piles of garbage stood a handful of cranes (I think they were cranes). The caption read something about how the crane-like creatures were being threatened by the enroaching human population. I was a little suprised, given that I thought the focus of the picture was a little boy picking through garbage. I remember hearing stories from missionaries about how children in South America (and likely other places too) went to the dump on a regular basis to collect items that can be cashed in later to help with the household income. But apparently the photographer was more impressed by the plight of cranes than little barefooted boys...

Here's a quote from the book:

"If well-behaved women seldom make history, it is not only because gender
norms have constrained the range of female activity but because history hasn't
been very good at capturing the lives of those whose contributions have been
local and domestic. For centuries, women have sustained local communities,
raising food, caring for the sick and picking up the pieces after wars. Today,
because more women are educated and communication is easier, more of these
projects get noticed, but the work has just begun... Well-behaved women make
history when they do the unexpected, when they create and preserve records, and
when later generations care." pp 227-228

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