How to Be a Good Woman: Re-Writing the Narrative

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Girl, Stop Apologizing" by Rachel Hollis. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does it mean to be a good woman? How is the modern idea of a good woman changing?

Traditionally, being a “good woman” meant being a good wife and a good mother. However, society is changing and women are starting to break free from these expectations. In her book Girl, Stop Apologizing, Rachel Hollis asserts that to be a “good woman” is to be true to yourself and to follow your individual desires.

Here is how to be a “good woman”, according to Rachel Hollis.

What Does It Mean to Be a “Good Woman”?

Foundational to Hollis’s premise in Girl, Stop Apologizing is the notion that society expects women to care for everyone else, and a “good woman” will sacrificially cast aside her own desires.

According to Hollis, the phrase “a good woman” is typically synonymous with “a good wife and mother.” She points out that by societal standards, a woman is deemed to be a good wife if her husband is happy and satisfied. Similarly, women are praised for being good mothers if their children are happy and healthy.

(Shortform note: While Hollis’s assessment of what society deems a “good woman” has strong roots in history and most cultures, the definition of a “good woman” is progressing; especially in light of the Me Too movement. In Essence magazine, Erica and Tina Atkins-Campbell (of the gospel duo Mary Mary) offer a modern definition of a good woman—without any mention of marriage or motherhood. Rather, they define a good woman as someone who knows who she is, is respectful and communicative, is resilient, and is kind and inspirational to others.)

Hollis goes on to say that because society expects women to run the household, they are often looked down upon for having career ambitions.

Hollis notes the double standard: A woman’s ability to earn money for her family is rarely connected with being a “good woman,” whereas men are often praised for being “good men” if they have a respectable job and provide financial security for their families.

For example, when Hollis started her own business, most people in her circle praised her. However, when she became pregnant, she says everyone she knew expected her to put the business aside and stay home with the children. She received even more judgment when those around her learned that her husband made enough money for her to stay home. Hollis realized that her decision to choose to work when she didn’t have to broke one of society’s unwritten rules.

(Shortform note: The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted society’s lack of respect for women’s career paths. According to a survey conducted by Seramount (a consulting firm that studies workplace inclusion), about one-third of moms in the workplace had to quit or reduce their hours during the COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020 and 2021, with most citing a need to take care of their children during school closures. However, the government didn’t prioritize child care as a pandemic issue to address.) 

At what point do women take on the expectation to sacrifice themselves for others? Hollis says praise for women meeting other people’s expectations begins in childhood.

According to Hollis, by conventional standards, a “good girl” is a child who doesn’t make waves. A good girl is happy, humble, and grateful. If she goes against the grain, she is labeled as difficult. Hollis contrasts this attitude with how young boys are seen when exhibiting the same behavior. She says that boys who rebel against the norm are instead viewed as leaders and visionaries.

Counterpoint: Expectations on Young Boys to Be Good Men

While the societal definition of a “good man” typically does not involve his value as a husband or father, young boys are conditioned in the same way that young girls are. In picture books and television shows, men are modeled as funny, strong, independent, and adventurous. Boys rarely see depictions of men who lean on their wives financially or emotionally, or are clumsy and out of shape—the way many men are in real life. As a result, when boys grow into men that don’t meet the standard modeled for them, they often experience the same cycle of shame that women do.

Hollis theorizes that this childhood conditioning makes women believe that if they focus on themselves and their own goals (instead of living entirely for other people), they aren’t good women.

The Truth: To Be a Good Woman, Be True to Yourself

Hollis argues that this line of thinking (a good woman must always put herself last) is an excuse that women must shed because when you’re being true to yourself, you’re better able to care for those you love.

Hollis insists that keeping your dreams hidden away, even if you’re secretly working on them, is the same as hiding part of yourself—and this takes a toll on your well-being. She believes that if you deny what your soul needs, it will manifest in illness, anxiety, and depression.

In regard to the idea of selfishness, Hollis points out that a fulfilled woman will be better in all of her relationships. She’ll be a better partner, a better parent, a better friend, and so on.

Motherhood Martyrdom Burdens Your Children With Guilt

As we’ve established, it is a cultural expectation that good mothers sacrifice for their children. What is less often considered is the guilt that this sacrifice produces, and who is bearing the weight of it. 

Gemma Hartley, author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward, wrote in The Washington Post about witnessing her mother’s college graduation. Her mother had quit college when Gemma was born, and she didn’t resume until she was well into her 50s. When Gemma watched her mother cross the stage and receive her diploma, she saw her mother as an individual for the first time—living only for herself, for one brief moment. 

Gemma was plagued with guilt for being “the thing” that made her mom quit college so many years before. She reflected on herself as a mother, and how she had begun setting aside her dreams of being a writer in the name of motherhood martyrdom. She decided in that moment that she would begin living for herself and that her children would be better off because of it.

Hollis reminds you that you have only one life, and you shouldn’t spend it feeling guilty, embarrassed, or shameful about having a dream.

The Fix: Give Your Soul What It’s Asking For

So what is Hollis’s advice on how to be a “good woman”? She says that the only way to live a full and happy life is to be open and honest about your dreams, goals, and desires. Hollis insists that being true to yourself is the most important thing you can do in life. She explains that it doesn’t matter if your dreams are big or small in someone else’s eyes, they just have to be important to you. Some women may dream of being an astronaut, while others may dream of running their own Etsy shop. Hollis says both dreams are equally valid if they feed your soul.

(Shortform note: Even though much of this book focuses on career ambition, your passion doesn’t have to be work-related and doesn’t have to make money. Many people work day jobs and fulfill their dreams and passions as hobbies. For example, your dream might be to live in India for a year, or to see every baseball stadium in America. Hollis’s main point is, don’t hold yourself back with small dreams when your heart is asking for more.)

How to Be a Good Woman: Re-Writing the Narrative

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Rachel Hollis's "Girl, Stop Apologizing" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Girl, Stop Apologizing summary :

  • Rachel Hollis's lessons she learned while building a multimillion-dollar company
  • Why "having it all" isn't something you should aspire to
  • Why women need to stop trying to fit society's idea of a "good woman"

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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