An Overdue Age of “Immodest Women”

I’ve been thinking this week about my colleague and good friend, Dr. Jensen Moore, whose tweet (@magicalpr) about reclaiming her title of “Dr.” went viral. With #immodestwomen, women with doctorates and other credentials have stepped up and reclaimed the honorifics as their due.

As they should. As all women should.

I recently discovered that I am the first female full professor in the history of the Department of Mass Media (and any of its previous incarnations). The thought dumbfounded me a bit, because how is it still possible that some firsts like that still exist in 2018?

I was tempted to downplay the achievement. I am always tempted to downplay my achievements, and in many ways, I often do downplay my achievements.

Part of this tendency to modesty comes from socialization and acculturation. Women of my cultural background (white, small town, upper Midwest, largely rural) get on with things. We step in, we do what needs to be done, we step back.

The tactic we’re taught is to work around and behind the scenes to effect change. Up front, well-publicized rebellion against the status quo only incites the menfolk. Present a well-thought out fait accompli, on the other hand, and the menfolk take the credit. Whether they do or not doesn’t matter, as long as the project (movement, whatever) gets done.

Evidence of this attitude can be found in multiple places. Historian Genevieve McBride documented an entire women’s movement in the Midwest that happened underground, in the women’s clubs and social circles. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in her column in the Missouri Ruralist, discussing suffrage, that many women agree that their men “are not infallible.” She did so while pointing out strategies for working around them.

In Mary Poppins, Mrs. Banks sings a song about her suffrage work, and the lyrics are telling: “While we adore men individually, we agree that as a whole they’re rather stupid.” I’d forgotten this line until I introduced my preschool-aged daughters to the movie, and it caught me by surprise, even as I giggled.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said, in her book, A Midwife’s Tale, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” The line also became the title of another of her books. Her point, in general, is that everyday women simply get on with what it is they need to do, as her protagonist, midwife Martha Ballard, did.

The lesson behind #immodest women, therefore rings with truth. Go ahead and get on with it, but don’t forget to take your credit where its due, too. In today’s climate, those living modestly get overlooked and left behind.

Congratulations, Dr. Moore, for raising this issue. And to all my colleagues, past, present, and future, remember to claim your title and own your own achievements.

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