The topic for my post today is Women Behaving Badly–Rebels and Outlaws. I jumped on the chance to converse on the topic, because, as you know, I already have a thing for history’s bad boys. I dug into a few history books, hoping to get some insight into the appeal of rebels.
What I found is that my topic is rather unfairly titled, and that the very notion of “bad girls” is hopelessly skewed. As Jillian pointed out last week, “history” as we know it, is far too often about men. And for centuries, written by men. So we are looking at these women being badly behaved through the lens of the men who observed them at the time—and judged them accordingly.
As I read further, I realized that women’s “bad” behavior is often a simple case of women behaving like (or competing with or wanting to be treated equally as) men. Cleopatra wanted to be a ruler in her own right. Anne Boleyn was opinionated. Boudicca wanted to rid her country of invaders. Maria Montessori wanted to be a doctor. Emmeline Pankhurst wanted a vote. Annie Oakley knew that “anything you can do I can do better.”
However. Even though they may have shocked and appalled their contemporaries, we can now see them as admirably, undeniably and vibrantly sexy (using the informal definition of “exciting” or “appealing”). These are women who changed the world and the way people look at the human race.
Anne Boleyn. She broke up a twenty-year marriage and helped usher in the Reformation which, unfortunately, led to many years of religious conflict, political instability and the burning of heretics. But at a time when women were viewed as little more than chattel (and sometimes treated more poorly), she challenged the status quo, expressed her opinions vigorously and didn’t tolerate fools lightly. No wonder we love her so much (even when we hate her).
Elizabeth I. Anne’s daughter was unlikely to grow up to be a submissive ninny. But what surprised her contemporaries was that she was determined not to let anyone have dominance over her. In Tudor England, a woman without a husband was nothing. And a monarch without an heir was living on borrowed time. Elizabeth proved that a “weak and feeble” woman could dominate not only court politics but the world political stage—a concept repeated by her (centuries later) successors Victoria and Elizabeth II.
What about the women who challenged the idea that only men could be literary giants? Jane Austen may have led a fairly quiet life, but has left a monumental literary legacy. George Sand led a scandalous life and provoked examination of the “ideals” of femininity and the inequality of the class system. And what about Dorothy Parker? One of my favorite historical figures, she held her own at the Algonquin Round Tables and frightened even the most stoic men with her biting wit. And then there are the Bronte Sisters, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Murasaki Shikibu. And today, we are still dodging a gender inequality in the literary world, as evidenced last year by David Gilmour’s declaration that he’s “not interested in teaching books by women.”
Women have challenged the art world (Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Dorothea Lange), science and medicine (Marie Curie, Elizabeth Blackwell, Isabella Bird, Mary Leakey, Jane Goodall), politics (Susan B. Anthony, Benazir Bhutto, the Pankhursts, Nancy Astor, and love her or hate her—Margaret Thatcher), popular culture (any Lady Gaga fans out there?), military service, journalism (my former Army officer-husband says they always knew things were getting bad when Kate Adie showed up).
Women’s history month is a time to celebrate the contribution of these badly behaved women. These rebels and outlaws got us to where we are today. Gave us a voice. Put us in charge of our own lives and our own bodies. Opened doors that wanted to stay closed. Raised the glass ceiling. Provided us with the foundation on which we can sit complacently and say, “Look how far we’ve come.”
But perhaps it’s also a time to look at the status quo today and decide if perhaps a little bad behavior might still be in order.
Our characters do it. Why shouldn’t we?