In my immigration law class this week, we watched a video about the Bracero Program, in which U.S. agriculture industrialists essentially recruited men from Mexico to do “stoop labor,” or the more undesirable farming jobs. The video was obviously a piece of propaganda created by the California Growers Council, attempting to assert the legitimacy of the Bracero Program. On the worksheet we were given to analyze the video, there was one question that seemed to baffle the whole class: “What was the role of women in the Bracero Program?” The only explicit reference to women in the video was when the video attempted to convince the American public that the Bracero Program benefited Americans: “Who benefits?” the video asks. “Housewives!” This, of course, references the fact that women do the grocery shopping, and the Bracero Program ensures that Americans can have fresh fruits and vegetables year round. When a student raised their hand and asked the professor what the deal was, he reminded us of the housewife comment, and then said, “You know, it’s interesting that we’re focusing so much on the male aspect of the Bracero Program, because there is a rich history of female Filipina and Mexican agricultural laborers and truck drivers who organized and unionized for fair wages and other labor rights.” Now, I don’t fault the professor for not telling us more: The polar vortex put everyone a week behind, and a lot of professors are still scrambling to make up the material. But that comment did get me thinking: Just how many women have been reduced to footnotes in the pages of history? How many women’s names have been lost to time — accomplishments forgotten by everyone except their children and grandchildren?
There’s a saying that gets circulated around the internet every so often, attributed to everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Eleanor Roosevelt, and it goes, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” I see this quote everywhere, whether it’s being used to describe Susan B. Anthony or Cardi B. Whether it’s civil disobedience or just trying to have a good time, this quote resonates with so many women today, women hoping to escape the constraints put on them by society. The quote’s origins are not quite as famous as Marilyn Monroe: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a professor of American history at Harvard, coined the phrase in her 1976 paper “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735.” The context of the quote is a discussion of women in the highly religious, Protestant, and often Puritan, New England society. Cotton Mather, a prominent Puritan writer and my favorite witch hunter, called these women “the Hidden Ones,” women who hoped not to be remembered by history, but by God as they awaited eternal judgement, hoping that he saw their faith and piety on Earth. These women will not get roads, schools, town halls or buildings named after them, but they are the cornerstones on which their communities are built. They have quite literally made history.
“Every woman who’s ashamed of her body is a victim of torture,” writes playwright Carolyn Gage in “The Second Coming of Joan of Arc.” “Every woman who doubts her own judgement is a victim of torture. So how many women do you know who haven’t been pulled apart?”
Perhaps I ought to have a greater thesis about womanhood and what it means to break free from the constraints of being “well-behaved.” Perhaps I have something greater to say about the fact that women must be “likeable” to be leaders, that though women no longer wear corsets and hoop skirts, we are physically bound by the constraints of makeup and high heels necessary to perform femininity.
I’m sure somewhere in me, I do. But right now, I am mostly just tired. The performance of being a woman is exhausting. Many find comfort and empowerment in this performance, others delight in subverting with it and playing with what it means, and for that I commend them. But I am tired of this performance. I am tired of being pulled apart by what I am supposed to be. The women who made history, the ones who were not well-behaved, were simply tired of being canaries in a coal mine. While we celebrate women who have broken the mold and have spoken out in the face of great opposition and violence, I wish we would also remember the women who fought the good fight in silence, who contributed what they could with the limited opportunities they had, without expecting anything in return.
Caroline Llanes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.