From time to time, I ask another writing mother to join my blog with a guest post. Today I welcome my friend Deborah Hining, award-winning author of A Sinner in Paradise and A Saint in Graceland, to tell her truth about an insidious lie we see almost every time we drive.


"Well-Behaved Women Often Make History"

Don’t believe everything you read on a bumper sticker. Deborah Hining talks about what it takes to be memorable.

Usually I take bumper stickers in the spirit they were intended, especially those that are sassy or exceptionally geeky, but occasionally one that probably is intended to be funny will rub me the wrong way. The one that is currently on my “It disturbs me to see” list reads, “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History.”

I find it irksome because, for one, it is not true.

Think hard. How many badly behaved women can you think of who have made history compared with well-behaved history-makers?

Wracking my brain, I can come up with only a handful of “bad” ones, but easily, a dozen of well-behaved women’s names come to mind. Off the top of my head: The Virgin Mary, Queen Elizabeth the First, Queen Victoria, Mother Theresa, Corrie ten Boom, Anne Frank, Madam Curie, Helen Keller, Amelia Earhart, Princess Diana, Eleonore Roosevelt, Golda Meir, and the list can go on for a very long time.

These women were human, and as such had some ordinary human faults, but those faults are irrelevant to the reason for their fame. What put them into history was their care for others, their fight for justice, their good works, talents, ambitions, intelligence, and leadership.

There are a few (a very few) who have made history with their bad behavior. Mata Hari slept with the enemy as a double agent. Lizzy Borden took an axe, gave her mother 40 whacks. Mary the First of England was known as “Bloody Mary” because she executed people who adhered to the wrong religion. There are many women whose bad behavior made them famous for a while, but for the most part, the history that they made was minor. Look them up and see who they were. I bet you’ve never heard of most of them, and the ones you have heard of recede into the shadows compared to the truly great, well- behaved women. Compare Bloody Mary with her sister Elizabeth I. Which one of them do you know more about? The bloody one, or the beloved monarch who led England into unpresented prosperity and enlightenment? Who sits in your consciousness more firmly—Mother Theresa or Mata Hari? Queen Victoria or Irma Ida Ilse Grese, the Nazi sadist? Who do you more easily recognize—Eleanor Roosevelt or Eleonore of Aquitaine (who was considered to “misbehave” because she favored her sons over her husband)?

There is another, more important reason I find such ideas about the merits of bad behavior distressing. I see them as damaging to our collective psyche. It says to our sons and daughters, “The way to be recognized is to act out. Don’t be a lady (or a gentleman). Don’t mind your manners. Behave badly.”

Such messages teach that the best way to get noticed is by taking your clothes off, getting drunk in public places, using foul language, bullying, and in general flouting the basics of decorous behavior. We all know this does not work.

People who deliberately misbehave in order to get noticed probably have swallowed the lie that ephemeral notoriety means the same thing as greatness. No one has bothered to teach them that true renown comes only by accomplishing something of real note.

Looking at our modern era, who do you think will fare better in the eyes of history, young rock stars who probably embarrass their mothers with their cringe-worthy performances, or Princess Kate, who minds her manners and works to end human trafficking?

Sad news that anybody, man or woman, who behaves badly might make the headlines for even a season, let alone go down in history, but that seems to be exactly what our culture is teaching us these days.

People have lost the inclination to be gracious. They have become overly sensitive to their own feelings, angry at anyone who expresses an opinion they disagree with.

No longer are politicians “politic,” held to a standard of judiciousness and sanity. The ones who get noticed—and voted for—are the ones who throw tantrums and blithely ignore the rules of manners. My Facebook page sports posts from conservatives and liberals alike that are full of untruths and half-truths, foul language, snide and vicious comments, and general hatred for anyone who is not on their side.

Whoever puts up the bumper sticker, “Well-behaved women rarely make history” may not be thinking that general bad behavior is the way to make your mark. Perhaps she is just frustrated by that fact that historically, women who deigned to rise to the top, to make something of themselves were the ones who did not conform to the societal expectation of helpmeet/mother/daughter/weaker vessel.

You may believe that women who become leaders do so because they stand up in defiance against stereotypical gender-defining roles, and that means they are “misbehaving” in the eyes of our society.

I believe that this line of thinking is very dangerous and has no place in the mind of anyone who believes in gender equality. Allowing that a stereotypical gender-role mindset is the norm gives credence to the idea that women who lead or do important things are automatically “misbehaving.”

That sends the message that women need to think twice about breaking barriers, of rising to the top, of achieving greatness. It says that ambitious women will have to deal with the rancor of people who will consider them bad for aspiring to the same goals for which men are applauded.

Since when is making great breakthroughs in science and medicine a bad thing? Since when is espousing equal rights for all, as did our more outspoken feminist and civil rights leaders, a bad behavior? Just because some people say it is doesn’t make it so.

Let’s not tell our girls that people who say it is so are people they should listen to. Let’s let them know that people who consider their aspirations and ambitions to be a type of misbehavior are people who DO NOT matter. They are small-minded, insignificant, and not to be regarded as sane.

Instead, let’s let it be known that well-behaved women DO make history, and in a good way, just as well-behaved men do.

The great women of history frequently adhered to the rules of good behavior—they had integrity, they were honest, kind, polite, generous, and unpretentious, and it was in part their graciousness and goodness that made them acceptable as leaders.

In fact, people who do try to behave well far outnumber their evil counterparts in the pages of history. Good people are far more likely to achieve great things, be more likely to rise to the top and to make lasting impressions upon the world.

How long will Golda Meir or Florence Nightingale, “good” women by any standard, grace the pages of history? Whoever heard of that awful Belle Gunnes?


This post contains Amazon affiliate links to Deborah’s books. If you choose to shop via those links, I will receive a small percentage of the sales for directing you to the site, but you will not pay a higher rate.