Rethinking What Makes a “Good Girl”

The ProfessorLately it has come to my attention (yet again) how very much the admonition to “be a good girl” has affected my life, and not for the better.  I strongly suspect that I am by no means alone on this, so maybe some of this will resonate for you too.  The phrase “be a good girl” is usually used to keep a girl child – or even woman – “in her place.”  The simple four-word phrase is backed up by the not-entirely-unspoken

Good Girls Ten Commandments:

  1. Good girls don’t make noise, and they never shout;
  2. Good girls don’t get their clothes dirty;
  3. Good girls don’t go first;
  4. Good girls don’t outshine or interrupt their brothers/boyfriends/husbands;
  5. Good girls don’t make trouble;
  6. Good girls don’t get a swelled head;
  7. Good girls aren’t bossy;
  8. Good girls don’t contradict or say no to someone in an authority position;
  9. Good girls don’t get angry; and
  10. Good girls DON’T EVER have sex (unless they’re married, at which point they’re no longer “girls”).

There are also some “good girls do”s, but other than “Good girls look their best at all times” they seem to be less in the nature of commandments and more in the line of suggestions.

These commandments are etched so deeply in our brains as we grow up that, when historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich declared “Well behaved women seldom make history,” it caught on like wildfire.   The Good Girls Ten Commandments really do define our idea of “well behaved” for women.  But when you think about it, is that really what you would call “well behaved”?  If so, then why are the women we admire so different from this picture?

People who know me may find this hard to believe, but, when I was growing up, I could be described as a classic “goody-two-shoes.”  I was such a good little Catholic girl that I had visions of being canonized as a saint.  My parents never worried about me because I never got into trouble.  In fact, it was so rare that when my eighth grade science teacher left the room for an extended period due to some emergency, and the entire room was goofing off in some way or another, what was it that pushed her shock and horror over the edge upon her return?  “When I see even Peggy O’Toole . . . !” (I changed my first name to Zoey in 1994, about the time I gave up being a “good girl” forever – or so I thought.)  What was my sin, you ask?  I was arm wrestling.

Malala Yousafsai -- Good Girl

Good Girl Malala Yousafsai

It took me a long time to understand what a straitjacket the “Good Girls” commandments were.  The problem with the don’ts is that they engender dangerous circumstances and unhealthy psychological states.  Because they can’t get angry (no matter how wronged), speak in a loud voice or interrupt (no matter how important what they have to say is), disobey or contradict  their elders (no matter how unjust), be smarter, stronger or more courageous than the men around them (no matter how dull), or express deep emotion (no matter how appropriate), “good girls” don’t feel joy or pain, don’t speak up against injustice, don’t escape dangerous situations, don’t tell when someone “in authority” has violated their trust and forced or coerced them to have sex, and good girls never take bold action (no matter how desperately it is needed).  In short “good girls” are inhibited from acting on their best impulses.  A straitjacket indeed.  Is that what we want for ourselves or our daughters?

But perhaps the worst part about all this “good girl” stuff is that it keeps girls from growing up into great women and mothers.  To be a great mother, you have to protect your children – even your girl children – with everything you’ve got.  That’s going to require breaking some of those good girl commandments.  First off, to be a mother – in vitro fertilization and the Virgin Mary aside – you have to have sex.  Though, if you’ve really internalized the good girl rules properly, you won’t enjoy it.  Then, you’ll need to get comfortable with being kind of bossy – you’re in charge now!  And what child gets through childhood without ever encountering danger?  A mother had better be able to shout “STOP!” with no hesitation, at the very least.  And what if an encounter with danger entails an encounter, or repeated encounters, with a doctor who won’t listen to you?  What do you do?  Do you obey your good girl training and let the doctor do whatever he or she likes, even though you know it’s putting your child in danger?  Or do you transcend that good girl training and awaken the mama bear inside, no matter how uncomfortable it feels?

You’ve probably figured out by now that it’s not possible to be a Thinking Mom and obey most of the Good Girls Ten Commandments and, personally, I think that’s because the Good Girls Ten Commandments are wrong.  They aren’t the qualities of good girls; those are the qualities of meek girls and women, who can never accomplish the great work that our world needs right now.   Our world has become so toxic, so focused on details that ignore the giant picture that is getting increasingly dark and muddy, that it requires a huge nudge in another direction – a direction that will require women to dig deep, transcend their good girl programming, and become the great women they are called to be.

I have long admired the way the LGBT community has co-opted what were intended as insults and slurs, words like “queer” and “that’s so gay,” and transformed them into badges of honor.  I propose to do something similar with “Be a good girl.”  Let’s change what the words “good girl” mean so that they line up with the qualities that make great women – women who are the change they wish to see in the world – by composing a

New Good Girls Ten Commandments:

  1. Good girls honor their feelings, including physical passion;
  2. Good girls feel a deep connection to the Earth and all its inhabitants;
  3. Good girls speak out about injustice everywhere;
  4. Good girls know that it’s never okay to hurt another, especially a child;
  5. Good girls let their light shine, knowing they have a right to be here;
  6. Good girls respect their own bodies and boundaries and those of others;
  7. Good girls speak their minds, even if their voices shake;
  8. Good girls listen to and act upon their intuition;
  9. Good girls make the world a better place for all; and
  10. Good girls lead when leadership is called for.

Good Girl Kaitlyn Brand

Be a good girl by following the new Good Girl Ten Commandments – and be a great woman. Here’s to all the good girls of the world!  May they grow to be great women whose light guides the world to a much better place.

What would you add to the Good Girl Ten Commandments?

~ Professor

Join me on Twitter.  My handle is @TMRProf, and I’ll be tweeting the Good Girls Ten Commandments with the hashtag #BeAGoodGirl.  

For more by Professor, click here.  

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3 Responses to Rethinking What Makes a “Good Girl”

  1. Jan R says:

    Excellent! and so true.

  2. This is a great post! Took me decades to get over my “good girl programming.” Thanks Prof!! Well said.

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