Rules for Good Girls
I grew up in a strict, rule-oriented household. Actually, there was only One Main Rule: Good Girls shall obey their parents in all things.
But the proof is in the Big Picture. So just to make things perfectly clear, here’s what the One Main Rule looked like on a daily basis, with the caveat that it could be expanded upon or modified at a moment’s notice as necessary.
Good girls shall NOT
- Watch Hollywood movies or enter movie theaters
- Dance or go to dances
- Read the Sunday newspaper or the Sunday “funnies” until Monday
- Wear revealing or suggestive clothing
- Wear lipstick
- Kiss anyone on the mouth (except your husband when you have one)
- Listen to worldly music on the radio or on the record player
- Display too much emotion verbally or bodily, whether positive or negative (especially pride, joy, excitement, anger or general rowdiness)
- Be late getting to bed (time set by your father)
- Whisper, giggle, get up for one more drink of water, argue or fight about who’s invading her side of the bed after lights are out
- Spend the night with friends from school, especially if the occasion is a pajama party
- Fight with, hit or even shove your sisters, no matter what they’re doing
- Resist bodily punishment
- Argue or complain about any other form of punishment such as not getting any dessert after supper if your father concludes you do not deserve it because of your table manners
- Begin eating until your father is seated at his place at the head of the table and we have said or sung a prayer and all plates have been served
- Serve your own plate
- Complain about what your father puts on your plate, or the amount he gives you of any item
- Leave any uneaten food on your plate, including extra servings of food your father decides to give you if you seem to have trouble getting it down, such as slimy stewed okra or liver
- Drag your feet, dilly-dally, whine, complain or make faces about what you are told to do—even though you seem to be obeying
- Say negative things to each other or to anyone else about your parents
- Disobey your father or mother
- Question or challenge your father’s rules for good girls
These prohibitions left me feeling isolated, lonely, awkward, left out, anxious and vigilant. I see them now as a kind of home-schooling curriculum to shape, mold and control me, using a skillful blend of iron fist and velvet glove. No histrionics. No arguments. Just verbal assurance that my parents loved me and had my best interests at heart, plus steady insistence on compliance. No exceptions unless thoroughly vetted and approved by my father.
As one of the Good Girls I often felt embarrassed, chagrined, ashamed, and lonely. Especially when I repeatedly had to answer invitations with, “I’m not allowed to do that.” I could never ever explain this to the satisfaction of most of my childhood classmates. As I got older, invitations from friends outside my small circle of church friends simply disappeared. I felt left out, invisible, painfully self-conscious, not invited to the party. Sometimes it seemed I didn’t really exist as a human being.
At home and away from home I felt increasingly defined by what I was not allowed to do, rather than by who I was in and through my body. To my school friends and neighbors, I was a preacher’s kid, a quiet good girl who never got into trouble, an outstanding student who always did her homework on time, belonged to the honor club, played the piano and read a lot. I also happened to take a pretty picture–as did our entire family. No one knew how I really felt about my life.
The goal of all these prohibitions was to make sure that I was separated from the world. Safe. The world was wicked, tempting, the realm of Satan, to be avoided by all means and at any cost. Nowhere was Satan’s realm more visible than in my female body, including my emotions, mind and will. Thus, to be separated from the world really meant I was separated from myself, even though I didn’t understand that back then.
Here’s my roll call of things from which I now know I was separated:
- my female body as a good and beautiful gift from God
- my sisters and my parents
- my emotions, will, intuition, intellect
- my thoughts, questions and dreams
- friends and classmates, 1950s culture–music, movies, dances, parties
- adults who might have been trustworthy enough to talk with me about what was happening and how I felt about it
- safety to speak openly with my parents about things that bothered, scared or confused me
- the privilege of openly articulating my own words, opinions, thoughts and questions without being corrected, silenced, laughed at or ignored
- the grace and healing of ever hearing my father apologize to me even once for any decision or action he took toward me
- confidence in my ability to make reasoned, healthy, life-giving choices
- freedom to acknowledge failures and mistakes that might have been valuable learning opportunities
- courage to express my thoughts and feelings freely in any setting
- the opportunity to explain myself without interruption and without being told what my body language or speech really meant
- the relief of saying out loud, without fear, how I felt about my life as a child and teenager
Sometimes I think of my childhood as a period of bodily and emotional numbness. Yes, we played games, had fun, laughed and enjoyed road trips across the country to the East or West Coast and back again. But danger was always lurking in the air, just waiting for me to make a misstep. It wouldn’t do to become too free, too careless or too carried away.
My numbness took the shape of withdrawing into myself, and deep fear of taking risks. Because so much was already ruled out, I took refuge in a small handful of things I truly enjoyed: playing the piano, reading, solitude, and the beauty of living most of my childhood in a rural area along an inter-coastal river highway of the Savannah River. The real world would have to wait until later.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 13 January 2014