“There are no good girls gone wrong – just bad girls found out.”
― Mae West
Last Thursday I got to attend a storytelling event featuring one of my personal feminist and academic heroines. I even got to meet her after the show and had to stop the litany of fangirling going on in my head as I went up to shake her hand, “Don’t say anything stupid, don’t freak out, smile don’t drool, stop grinning like a hyena…” After I thanked her for the work she’s doing in multiple mediums, she gave me a hug and I went away skipping.
But next to meeting this woman, the coolest moment was when audience members were invited to contribute a story of their own on the evening’s them: Good Girls Don’t. I’d always wanted to try it so I volunteered as available, and to my surprise I was picked. Here’s a brief riff on the story I told. The story at the event was a lot less polished, but it’s still worth the retelling. (Sorry in advance, Mum, but it’s my favorite story of you ever.)
My mother has a good life, I think, but parts of it could have made a Lifetime Original Movie. She’s overcome abuse, depression, and family issues to come out on the other side with three degrees, four kids, world travel, and a survivors mindset hidden behind a beautiful house, antiques, and academia. My mother believes in being strong minded, independent, and educated – but in addition to this, she believed in being a lady.
Ladies aren’t rough, they are firm but polite. They speak well and keep their elbows off the table. They sit up straight. They converse intelligently but in measured tones. Above all they are not crass: bad or rude language was not permitted in our house. We could ask any questions we wanted, all the kids were given a lot of independence, and we were given a lot of intellectual leeway in some ways, but we could not swear. This got to be difficult for me as I got older because frankly I love a good “damn!” and think some words, while perhaps less than savory, are absolutely the appropriate words to use in some situations. But not for Mum. Ladies don’t use coarse language and heaven help me if I did in her presence.
I think, and this is just speculation on my part, that being ladylike was so important to my mother because she’s overcome a lot and coming out of it with the moral high ground was important to her. Behaving properly and speaking well are markers of success, intelligence, and sophistication – my mother earned all those descriptions and it was important to her that her children acquire them as well. To become ladies in the case of her daughters, and gentlemen in the case of her sons.
But I was there the day my mom broke.
When we were living on that tiny island in the Pacific, my father had achieved considerable rank in his career and with that came some perks. We had designated parking spaces, respectful nods, and my mother was able to be a part of organizations with some prestige in the community, even rising to become the president of one. One day she had to run some errands and pulling into a parking lot towards her designated spot, she accidentally cut someone off.
It was a man, who promptly lost it. He started banging on his steering wheel, screaming obscenities that we couldn’t hear and culminated with lifting one hand and flipping my mother off.
And my mother, in her nice suit and pearls around her neck, sitting in her minivan with four children, with a lifetime of hard knocks behind her just looked at the guy. Years later I’d still give anything to know what went through her head because I never saw what was coming. I have no idea why this was the moment that snapped her, but apparently the time had come. Her jaw tightened for a moment, she raised both her hands…and returned the gesture. Double barreled.
All four kids stared at her. The man, his jaw hanging open and his face draining of color as he recognized the markings on our car that indicated my father’s rank, faded in the rear view mirror as my mother turned into her designated parking. And my mother, composure restored, shut off the car calmly in her spot before turning around in her seat to look at us. “Never do that, children,” she said in precise, correct tones. “It’s rude.”
Mum thinks that this “might not have been her best mothering moment,” though I disagree. All four of us kids still speak of that day in hushed tones, it was that earth shattering and awesome. Without a doubt, even at the height of our teenage angst and parent despising, every last one of us respected Mum for this out-of-character act. She somehow became more human, less image conscious, taller, braver, and far more imposing in that moment than we had ever given her credit for. In spite of what we knew she’d gone through in her life, there were suddenly sides to our mother we realized we didn’t know, and we knew that wherever they were hiding, we didn’t want to mess.
Well behaved women might not get angry, fight back, or use bad language… but then again they might and it’s okay, no one is going to revoke your pearls. In fact, some people might even grudgingly admire you. Good girls don’t raise both fists to the skies, but I learned in one spectacular moment that sometimes…just occasionally Ladies do.