The myth of the “good woman”

I am heading up a project for my school’s honor society. I volunteered to serve in this role because I felt that I could organize the project and, hopefully, inspire other members to join in because of the possibilities it presented. To summarize, we were presented with a variety of themes to research. I invited feedback on the themes and, as a group, we chose the theme that had the most interest. I was thrilled that we chose a theme based on human expression.

As I am on a journey to find my own repressed feminine voice after 27 years of marriage to a man who believes women’s voices are nearly synonymous with the devil’s voice, I had a huge challenge ahead of me in finding what I lost along the way and reintegrating those lost parts of me with the present me. Sounds like crazy psychosocial speak, but it really does make sense.

This morning, with coffee in hand, fighting a horrible headache, I decided to put off taking my online final exam until I feel better. I did not, however, want to just do nothing practical in attacking my long list of things to do for school (writing emails, journaling about Honor Society progress this week, working on grant applications, ordering textbooks, etc.). I decided to begin researching what I consider very important and extremely concerning at the same time: women’s voices in the 21st century.

There is something very wrong. Up here in New England, the young women I attend class with are typically so reserved that they do not speak up much in class. There are a couple in each class that have great ideas and are willing to express them in front of others, but I noticed that those women were either older (meaning, older than 30 or 40) or already very comfortable with self expression (have tattoos, fun-colored hair, many piercings). I am just sharing some observations here.

The rest of the women in class were fairly nondescript, not unattractive, some very attractive (and obviously focused on beauty and fashion, and not ideas), but reluctant to speak up. In classes with a female professor even, it didn’t seem to make much of a difference.

In my online classes, the guys were more willing to engage in back and forth dialog, and even some debate about ideas while the women would simply make comments, but as soon as there was even a hint of debate, became silent.

All of this leads up to my point. I found a very interesting paper that addresses what the author calls a “silencing paradigm.” From my notes, this is what I took from the first two pages of this paper:

The author, Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant, in her paper, “Listening Past The Lies That Make Us Sick: A Voice-Centered Analysis Of Strength And Depression Among Black Women,” published in Qualitative Sociology, discusses a “silencing paradigm” (392).

“Most provocatively, the silencing paradigm refutes the conceptualization of depression as a unique and pathological state, as portrayed in the medical literature, and instead depicts it as a process and a continuum with deep roots in what are largely considered “normative” conditions of femininity and representations of feminine goodness. Turning to women as guides—in part to remedy the lack of women’s perspectives on their distress in the scholarly literature (Schreiber and Hartrick 2002; Stoppard 2000)—the silencing paradigm has generated novel insights into the onset, experience of, and recovery from depression” (392).

Beauboeuf-Lafontant goes on to define feminine goodness or the feminine norm. It includes surrender to reproductive responsibilities, meeting social expectations, conforming to feminine beauty, political distancing or disenfranchisement, economic issues and much more. What was the most profound to me in my stage of recovery from emotional surrender to this myth of feminine goodness, is how this surrender starts a process of death in parts of a women’s personality over time, and that recovery from depression includes discovery, resurrection, and reintegration of these parts.

I am probably not explaining this well, but it makes so much sense, and deeply touched my own struggle at this point in my life. I have had to reject so much of what I had accepted in the past before I could begin to emerge from my own deep depression following my marital separation.

Men are not aware that they demand conformity to their standards of womanhood. It has always been this way from the beginning of time. This feminine movement away from this has created a real dilemma among women who are struggling to be free. We face rejection by our families, churches, and spouses, and sometimes criticism and rejection by communities, depending on how much focus is placed on conformity.

Women have not been free to become what they want to become, even in the face of the feminist movement.

The paper I mentioned above addresses the silencing paradigm as it particularly manifests in black women, but it is universally applicable to all women’s groups, ethnicities, cultures, and religions, in my opinion.

The good woman, or the feminine ideal, has been destructive to the development of women as people, as individuals, in ways that we are just beginning to measure.

We must begin to question such myths. We must reconsider the idea that women are good if they do this, and bad if they do that. We do not apply such standards to men. Really, we don’t. There are only a handful of behaviors that label a man “bad” in modern society (such as pedophilia, incest, etc.) whereas a woman who allows a nanny to spend more time with her child than she does because the woman has a successful career is still seen in a negative light.

I can’t wait to read more of this paper, and find similar research on the silencing of women’s voices. My journey to discover my own voice leads me to desire the same for other women. I find myself wishing to head off the silencing of young women’s voices somehow. If only they can skip the part where they lose themselves trying to conform to some mythological standard of good womanhood. If only.

Just thought I would share my morning exploration.

Sorry, forgot to list the source properly (I am using MLA because that is what I have been using all year long).

Works Cited

Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Tamara. “Listening Past The Lies That Make Us Sick: A Voice-Centered Analysis Of Strength And Depression Among Black Women.” Qualitative Sociology 31.4 (2008): 391-406. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 May 2014.


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