An old phrase for an old problem
By Teppei, Contributor
‘Behind’ encompasses all kinds of connections a man might have had with a woman at any point in their lives—like a grandmother or a teacher.
It is undeniable that misogyny is a more serious problem than many currently realize. Phrases degrading women can be heard—or said—during the most casual conversations with your colleagues, friends, or partner regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. I think if you were to open any book on your shelf, you are most likely going to find at least one or two lines that could be considered misogynistic. The old adage “behind every great man is a great woman” is a commonly referenced phrase that is viewed as sexist. I started wondering whether the phrase actually was degrading. Maybe I have heard it so many times that I have just learnt to accept it.
At first glance, the problem seems to be the word “behind,” since it hints at the controversial belief or tradition where women should walk three (or depending on the country) ten steps behind their husbands.
Kitty Pope tried to give this phrase a twist by choosing Beside Every Great Man Is a Great Woman as the title of her book. In it, she writes about 31 African American women who have heavily contributed to their husband’s successful lives. While I believe this is a good angle to speak about those women from, the word “beside” sets a parameter around the types of relationships great men can have with great women. “Behind” encompasses all kinds of connections a man might have had with a woman at any point in their lives—like a grandmother or a teacher.
While it is easy to grasp the concept of your romantic partner being beside you through all life’s endeavors, it brushes aside all other strong feminine figures one can have during their lives. When I think of myself (though by no means am I a “great” man yet) I am positive that the greatness within myself has been shaped by my mother’s teachings and her role in my upbringing. She has been the most influential feminine figure I have ever had.
Let’s keep in mind as well that in the 1800s women were deprived of many rights that they have now. Not many women were allowed to attend universities or to have political careers. Many scientific advances were achieved by women but were not credited to them solely because they were women. Same happened in the arts, where women would write books or create paintings and their husbands or brothers would get all the credit.
“Behind every great man is a great woman” is a phrase that attempts to provide with some sort of feeling of justice and recognition (in a very general and minimal way) all the women’s work and efforts to make this world a better place and has been completely ignored or under recognized. I think we still have a long and steep way ahead of us when it comes to gender equality and we could never do enough to make amends for what has happened. Unfortunately, it still happens, but acknowledgement is a good first step.