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[Kim Seong-kon] The power of ‘bad girls’ in history

Traditionally, men have harbored prejudices against smart and capable women. Feminist scholars have pointed out how often a shrewd woman in a fairytale is called a “witch” or “wicked stepmother” by male writers. Chauvinistic social conventions describe astute and perceptive women only as “bad girls.” However, those “bad girls” have accomplished many splendid things with their creativity and competence.

Recently, I came across an intriguing book, “Bad Girls Throughout History” by Ann Shen. At first, I thought the book was about notorious women in history. Yet while browsing the contents, I came across some familiar names: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Madame Curie and Jane Austen, who one would think could not have been a “bad girl” even if she tried.

Indeed, in her provocative book, Shen convincingly argues that Stowe was a “bad girl” because her book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” helped to ignite the US Civil War. According to Shen, Madam Curie was a “bad girl,” too, because she did not abide by her country’s rule that prohibited women from entering college, leaving Poland for France to pursue higher education. As a result, Madam Curie became not only the first woman Nobel laureate, but also the first person to win it twice. Jane Austen was among the “bad girls” as well because she wrote novels at a time when social conventions did not welcome women writers. Given these circumstances, Austen chose to publish her novels anonymously, using the byline, “By a Lady.”

In the introduction to her book, Shen wrote; “This is a book about those who came before us, who knocked up against that glass ceiling and made a tiny fissure into a full-on crack.”

Shen introduces and reinterprets famous courageous women who might be “bad girls” in their own time, and yet who turned out to be “good girls” later. Appropriately, the subtitle of the book is “100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World.”

Shen begins her book with Lilith, who was Adam’s first wife in Hebrew myth. God made her from clay, just like Adam. Lilith refused to be subservient to Adam and demanded equality. When ignored, Lilith left the Garden of Eden. After that, God made Eve from Adam’s rib the second time around. Although Lilith was a “bad girl” in her time, she was the first feminist in history, who taught us that a woman must be “next to a man, not beneath him.”

Among the “bad girls” was Lady Godiva, who married the Earl of Mercia, Leofric. When he levied a heavy tax on the people, Godiva pleaded with him to cancel it. Leorfric told her that if she rode through the town completely naked, he would withdraw the tax. Without further ado, Godiva mounted a horse -- naked -- to save her people from tyranny. The name of the famous Belgian chocolate, Godiva, stems from this genuinely “noble” woman.

Of course, no good deed goes totally unpunished. When Lady Godiva was riding the horse, all the townsfolk closed the doors of their homes and turned away for decency. However, a curious naughty boy named Tom peeped through the door. Hence, the English expression “Peeping Tom” refers to someone who pries into others’ private matters.

In Shen’s category of “bad girls,” the reader can find many legendary historical women, such as Cleopatra, Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette. Using her considerable charm to woo Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, Cleopatra saved Egypt. Joan of Arc, too, saved her country, France, by valiantly riding with the French Army during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. Marie Antoinette, an Austrian princess who married the French king, Louis XVI, modernized the French court using her “innovative fashion sense” and thus became an idol queen. Shen argues that Marie Antoinette was a scapegoat during the French Revolution. “If bread is not available, let them eat cake,” Shen adds, was likely to be fabricated because the statement was in a book by Jean Jacques Rousseau already, referring to “a Spanish princess long before Marie Antoinette was even born.”

Other “bad girls” include Florence Nightingale, Helen Keller. Lucille Ball, Hedy Lamarr, Betty Friedan, Eva Peron and Margaret Thatcher. Among them, Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian actress who came to the US and not only became a famed movie star, but also an inventor of “an alternative to radio wave technology” that became the precursor to today’s Wi-Fi. Betty Friedan wrote a precursor to modern feminism with her monumental 1963 book, “The Feminine Mystique.” Eva Peron was controversial, and yet “she was a passionate advocate for trade unions, labor rights and women’s suffrage.” Margaret Thatcher was the UK’s first female prime minister, and led the UK with outstanding leadership and vision, overcoming economic difficulties.

Among the living “bad girls” in the book are Madonna, Oprah Winfrey and Malala Yousafzai. Although perceived as “bad girls” by some in their own time, these courageous and competent women broke the glass ceiling and changed the world. Let us now praise the “bad girls.”


Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.
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