Unladylike: The Way of the Uncooperative Woman

By Emily Z.

This all started with a book about female serial killers. I don’t quite remember how, but that book led to a book about being a single lady before it was cool. From there I discovered books about or by remarkable, multifarious women who were all very different in their approach to being womanly. What precisely makes these women/books remarkable varies and not all are glowing examples of feminism or even virtue, but that is kind of the idea. Women are people and people are complicated. For some of these women, their power is apparent in their words and worldviews. With others, it is found in the way they lived their lives (and when).

A woman does not need to be Eleanor Roosevelt, Frida Kahlo, or Malala Yousafzai to be significant and worthy of consideration. It helps, but we already expect quite a bit from women, even if we don’t always say it in actual words. Be sexy, but not too sexy. Be responsible, but not a nag. Anticipate the needs of others, but don’t expect praise for doing so. Find salads hilarious. Never age. Be forever attractive, smart, modest, helpful, fashionable, an earner, a mother (even if you don’t have kids), a partner, an interior decorator, meal-planner, maid, and more, regardless of your individual interests and skill set. Adding “revolutionary activist and cultural icon” on top of all that is … a lot.

The discussion about what makes a woman a woman and what makes that woman palatable and proper has been writhing, and evolving for centuries. Proper lady behavior is traditionally defined by one’s dominant culture, but as cultures shift with time, geography, the waxing and waning influence of different generations, the economy, etc that doesn’t narrow the field of debate by much. In different ways, these books add their voices to this deliberation. In pictures and prose, each nudges us to question what it means to be female.


Questioning Definitions:

You Play the Girl by Carina Chocano

This is a hard book to pin down, but in the best way. It’s a series of essays examining the way women, girls, princesses, female celebrities, and even cross-dressing cartoon rabbits are presented in popular culture and what that does to our minds. As someone with a young daughter, Chocano is understandably curious about the influence of media on the next generation of women. Her writing engages because it often starts from unexpected places and goes in equally surprising directions. “Let It Go” starts out talking about the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister of Ukraine, and ends up in the land of Disney princesses. Chocano’s humor, skill at painting a scene with words, and anecdotes about her adorable daughter don’t hurt either.

Refusing to Settle Down:

The Extra Woman by Joanna Scutts

This is not a biography of Marjorie Hillis (a woman most of us have never heard of), but a book that uses her unique line of self-help guides as a scaffold for a much, much more expansive examination of what it meant to be a woman in 20th century America. Hillis wrote books for the burgeoning group of 1920s, 30s, and 40s women who were considering not getting married right away (or at all). The first of these, Live Alone and Like It, playfully postulated the idea that single women could exist apart from their families and husbands. This was something legally, financially, and culturally unheard of for most of history up to that point. She argued that women could achieve a previously unimaginable autonomy and agency in their lives without also feeling worthless or lonely. Hillis’ writing helped to normalize the idea of the single, employed woman on an international scale. She also published a budgeting guidebook during The Great Depression—a truly unenviable task—and encouraged women to discuss their shared financial future with any prospective beaus. The rest of Scutt’s book explores Hillis’s competition in the burgeoning self-help publishing market as well as those who came later. It is an ambitious, absorbing read on the evolution of womanhood in the west.

Being a Menace to Society:

Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History by Tori Telfer

Female serial killers might not seem to be part of the conversation about female empowerment, but Telfer makes it happen. She does not necessarily sympathize with these murderesses, but provides useful historical context and offers alternative theories regarding their motivations (and how they might differ from those of male serial killers). She also swats down some of the more romantic, overly dramatic ideas that evolved around these mysterious figures. For example, Erzsebet Bathory probably didn’t actually bathe in gallons of servant-girl blood. Sorry.

The print version of the book includes a list of recommended music to listen to while reading, a Q&A with the author, notes, and suggestions for further reading on each subject.

Dressing Innapropriately:

Advanced Style: Older and Wiser by Ari Seth Cohen

This is the second edition of Cohen’s catalog of street-style (the first book is also available). In this photographic compendium of outstanding outfits, Cohen approaches women (and okay, a few men) of experience and captures their look that day. An enormous range of subjects and styles are represented; there are Chanel bags and practical linen slacks. Every ensemble is unique and the aesthetics covered come in every flavor: runway-worthy high fashion, leopard prints, boho-chic, rainbow, leathers, feathers, tweeds, tartans, crepes, kimonos, and every possible astonishing hybrid in between. These are women who know exactly how they want to present themselves. If the model has time, Cohen also tries to snag an interview. It is difficult to choose a favorite, but mine might be on page 159. ————–>


Are there any books that made you stop and think about what it means to be a woman? How far women have and have not come?

I have more titles in the list below, but I’m always interested to find more.

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9 responses to “Unladylike: The Way of the Uncooperative Woman”

  1. This might be my new favorite list! Adding everything to my TBR pile.

    • Emily Z says:

      Yay, I’m glad you like it! I had fun putting it together–it was actually fairly hard to stop adding to it. And now I want to go read Marjorie Hillis’ actual advice book.

      • Marina says:

        Danielle beat me to the comment I was going to use. I thoroughly enjoyed not only seeing the items you compiled for your list but the post in its entirety. Great job!

  2. Jenny says:

    These are absolutely fantastic – thanks for posting!

  3. Ruth Griffith says:

    Love love love this post! Books that come to mind are “Girl Waits With Gun,” by Amy Stewart, Barbara Ehrenreich’s “NIckel and Dimed,” and some of the radical women in Rebecca Solnit’s “A Paradise Built in Hell
    The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disasters,” especially those who helped others after the great San Francisco Earthquake. I Love Uppity Women!!

    • Emily Z says:

      Okay, I am definitely reading Girl Waits with Gun and I’ve been meaning to read all of Rebecca Solnit’s books ever since I laid eyes on the title Men Explain Things to Me.

  4. Andie says:

    Great list, Emily; finding salads hilarious is most refreshing!

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