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What is a well-behaved woman anyway?

Published 5th November, 2019 in MRP Guest Blogger

The other day, when I gave my Grandma and Grandpa their early copy of Well-Behaved Women, I found myself apologising for all the bad words I had used. 

It’s not that I’ve used gratuitous swearing or offensive slurs or anything like that. It’s just that this is how my characters talk. Words like ‘fuck’ are part of their vocabulary. They are part of mine. 

Grandma’s response was to say (in jest) that well-behaved women do not swear. 

The thing is, the women in my book are not well-behaved. Some of them are decidedly badly behaved. I have characters who use people, characters who deliberately upset strangers, characters who just don’t behave the way that ‘good girls’ are supposed to. 

Over the last twelve months, there has been a lot of discourse about women speaking out. From the #Metoo movement, where a lot of high profile women in the film industry revealed that they still felt immense pressure to stay silent rather than anger powerful men who could ruin their careers, to the more recent ridiculing of Greta Thunberg by people who don’t want to admit that she has a point and something has to change if we still want a planet for our children to live on. There is this sense that women are fed up of being silent when the alternative is saying something people might not want to hear. In the popular culture, the release of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments almost sparked a movement in itself. Not since Harry Potter have readers been so keen to attend midnight book launches. We have a President in the most powerful Western Nation in the world who thinks that it’s funny to talk about grabbing women by the pussy. This is not Gilead—but everything that happens in The Handmaid’s Tale (both the book and the TV show) and The Testaments has a precedent in real human history, and the idea that it *could* happen here chills me to the bone. 

So, speaking up might not be the popular thing to do, but it’s the only way that we are ever going to see the things that need to change, change. 

I like to think of Well-Behaved Women as an ironic category that groups together all of the female characters in my book. The title comes from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s famous quote, which is sometimes attributed as “Well-behaved women seldom make history” and sometimes as “rarely make history.” It all boils down to the same thing, in the end. Mine is not an overtly political book. I don’t address world politics, or the #MeToo movement, or even He Who Shall Not Be Named in the White House. I tried to address the abortion debate, but found I couldn’t do it justice in 3000 odd words. I will keep trying. No—my heroines look at the possibilities for being well-behaved women that come from the micro level. My characters have to address what is right for themselves, whether that be following their passions, listening to their hearts, defying their families, being honest about past hurts, being good friends, mothers, sisters… 

My Grandma (rightly) put me in my place about the fact that I wanted to protect her from the bad words—she’s not fragile and delicate. She might not use swear words herself, but she’s heard them. She’s been a teacher, raised a family, been the head of an organisation. She’s a well-behaved woman too, working every day for the things she wants to see in the world. 

So yes, I’ve used colourful language. But in the grand scheme of things, I think that’s okay. Anyone who has ever stubbed their toe knows that ‘sugar’ really is no substitute. 

You can read Emily’s first post with us, ‘I’ve Got the Music in Me’, here.

Emily Paull is a former-bookseller and future-librarian from Perth who writes short stories and historical fiction. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies as well as Westerly journal. When she’s not writing, she can often be found with her nose in a book.

We publish high-end literary fiction, crime and the best short stories currently being written in Australia.

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