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Good Books for Badly Behaved Women

Elise Loehnen has written a cri de coeur for women to challenge the ancient ideas of "good behavior" to gain freedom and balance in their lives. Here she recommends 10+ books that influenced her philosophy and new book.
Tertulia •
Mar 3rd, 2023

"Well-behaved women seldom make history." We've all heard the phrase, which has been attributed to various women including Anne Boleyn, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marilyn Monroe and of course the Pulitzer-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich who wrote the book on how women have been written into history.

In a twist on the theme of women's behavior, author Elise Loehnen has done a deep dive into how patriarchal concepts of bad behavior—namely, the seven deadly sins—have programmed women to set limitations on their own desires and capacities. On International Women’s Day, we recommend her forthcoming On Our Best Behavior: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good.

Loehnen is one of the most generous book recommenders out there. We asked her for recommendations of books that have had the most impact on her work and philosophy, and here's what she shared:  

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Wengrow & David Graeber

This was a critical guide for me as I dug into the formation of patriarchy, proving that the culture we live in today was not a foregone conclusion. The Dawn of Everything hints at a much more creative pre-history, and the potential of a future that looks far different than today.

The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

My book is structured around the Seven Deadly Sins, which incidentally, weren’t even in the Bible—they emerged out of the Egyptian desert by the hand of a monk, at around the same time that the New Testament was codified. There are no finer investigators of early Christianity and Mary Magdalene—to whom the sins were assigned in the sixth century—than Princeton professor Elaine Pagels, Harvard Divinity professor Karen L. King, and Episcopalian priest and Christian mystic Cynthia Bourgeault—all three were my guides through this tangled, man-made history.

Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte

When award-winning journalist Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed crossed my transom in 2015, it spoke to every crevice of my soul as a new mom working two nearly full-time jobs. While I’ve always defined myself by my productivity and resistance to rest, I came to understand that this fear of SLOTH is largely gendered: My husband had plenty of time for leisure, despite the addition of our son, leaving me to feel both exhausted and inadequate in all spheres of life.

In a Different Voice by Carol Gilligan

There are several authors and experts whose expositions revealed what I understood and yet could never articulate about growing up as a woman: As Carol Gilligan studies and reports, girls are taught to not say what they know, and more importantly, to not give voice to what we want. Instead of speaking our discomfort and our desires, we leave these desires unexplored and unexamined—when we see another woman doing, or having, something we might want for ourselves, our instinct is to criticize or police her, not understanding that we’re actually floating on a lake of undiagnosed ENVY, and that she very well might be pointing us toward what we want for ourselves.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall-Kimmerer

In her masterpiece, Robin Wall-Kimmerer tells the story of the three sisters—corn, bean, squash—and how the growth of each plant affords the health of the others. In Wall-Kimmerer’s view, this Indigenous story is a metaphor for the requirement that each of us play our role and deliver our gifts to the world—a difficulty in a culture that shames women for daring to be seen, for living big, for eschewing humility and choosing PRIDE instead.

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon

It’s no secret that we live in a fat-phobic culture, and that women are conditioned to be as small as possible: In our society, health and thinness are entwined and extolled as moral virtue, while GLUTTONY is condemned as a lack of self-love and respect. And at what cost? Aubrey Gordon, host of the uber-popular podcast “Maintenance Phase,” turns this programming on its head, urging all of us to understand exactly what we have been imbibing.

The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist

Yes, it’s hard to argue for the virtues of GREED in a culture where we’re in ecological debt, but with a pay gap that’s resistant to closing, and a wealth gap that’s widening ($0.32 to the dollar!), women need greater comfort with money—after all, we’re also far more likely to redistribute it to worthy causes. Lynne Twist’s classic is a masterclass on the idea of enough along with the toxic myth of scarcity—she offers essential reframes on understanding money as energy, as well as resistance to the capitalistic idea that it’s every woman’s responsibility to shore up the economy through spending.

Girlhood by Melissa Febos

The countervailing forces around women and sexuality are intense, and there’s no greater guide to the body and its boundaries than Melissa Febos, a stunning writer who also spent time as a dominatrix. Ours is a culture that extols women to be desirable (but not desiring), all while serving as babysitters for the LUST of men. At best, it’s confusing—at worst, it’s incredibly harmful.

Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister

There are several incredible polemics about the ramifications for publicly and visibly angry women—Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad, Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her—all arriving at the same point: Angry women are vilified, maligned, called crazy. And yet, we have so much to be pissed about—our ANGER is typically righteous and clear-sighted, with the potential to lead us toward a more equitable future.

I Don’t Want to Talk About It by Terry Real

No, SADNESS is not one of the Seven Deadly Sins—but it was on the original list before being subsumed by SLOTH (or apathy). Sadness haunts us still though, and I make the argument that the disavowal of this emotion is primarily lodged in the minds of men, becoming one of the primary symptoms of toxic masculinity: A disconnection from our feelings, particularly the hard ones, pushes us into a cycle of despair. Until we can accept our grief, and allow our sadness to come, we’ll never be able to address our ecocide and the unsustainability of our current culture.

ELISE LOEHNEN is a writer, editor, and host of the podcast Pulling the Thread.

Her forthcoming book, On Our Best Behavior: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good, weaves together history, memoir, and cultural criticism to explore the ways patriarchy lands in the bodies of women and embeds itself in our consciousness—and what we then police in ourselves and in each other.

Releases May 2023; Preorder now.

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