Lots of people are credited with coining the great phrase, “well-behaved women rarely make history.” They include Marilyn Monroe, Gloria Steinem, Eleanor Roosevelt, Anne Boleyn, and many more. Given time, any powerful woman with backbone and nerve will get credit for this phrase and sentiment. Even Princess Leila from “Star Wars” saying “well-behaved women rarely defeat empires” is a popular internet meme.
It’s a great quote, but we should credit its actual author. And we’re so happy that it came from an academic scholar, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who is a professor of Early American history at Harvard. Academic historians rarely make history, but Professor Ulrich certainly has. While she was a PhD student, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich published an important article in the spring 1976 issue of the journal American Quarterly. Its title was, “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735.” (“Vertuous” was an alternate spelling of “virtuous” in the 18th century.)
Professor Ulrich wrote about women from early America who were not usually featured in history books. Well-behaved or virtuous women from that time have been largely lost to history because their lives were unremarkable by the terms of who decides what counts as history. Usually, and far too often (frankly), only women who break social rules or upset social norms get noticed by chroniclers at the time, and make it into the history books. As Ulrich wrote,
“Cotton Mather called them ‘The Hidden Ones.’ They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question God or the magistrates. They prayed secretly, read the Bible through at least once a year, and went to hear the minister preach even when it snowed. Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history; against Antinomians and witches, these pious matrons have had little chance at all.”
“Antinomians,” by the way, were Christians who believed that there were no moral laws that God expected believers to obey, including Old Testament law. Faith alone brings salvation and that was enough for Christians to follow. Anne Hutchinson was perhaps the most famous early American who fit this definition.
Since Professor Ulrich was not yet a well-known person in the late 1970s, it’s very likely that this quotation floated around at the time without attribution. But our modern culture hates what Ralph Keyes, the author of The Quote Verifier, calls “orphan quotes.” Like so many other quote orphans, “well-behaved women seldom make history,” not only got changed to “well-behaved women rarely make history,” but got attached to many famous women. That’s why Marilyn Monroe, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gloria Steinem, and Princess Leila get credit.
Things are improving somewhat, Buzzkillers. Professor Ulrich’s name often appears next to the quote on the inter-webs these days. And, indeed, she wrote a book not only about how this quote came about, but in it, she also shows how various important women have either been championed or ignored by history, and how those things come to be.
Get Professor Ulrich’s book on the Buzzkill Bookshelf. Believe me when I tell you that it’ll open your eyes about women’s history and what it means to make history.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History.
The admired historian, and coiner of one of feminism’s most popular slogans, explores what it means for women to make history.