As I was walking around the local library today, a book popped out at me. The name is “Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History”, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. She is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, and wrote these words in 1976.
Ulrich’s original quote first appeared in American Quarterly in spring of 1976, entitled “Virtuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735.” The article begins with this paragraph:
"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."
Ulrich’s intention was not to incite behaviors like Britney Spears or Madonna, nor behaviors of history-changing women such as Joan of Arc or Rosa Parks. In her own words, she was “making a commitment to help recover the lives of otherwise obscure women.” Instead of being forgotten, she was trying to acknowledge ordinary women, calling for history to pay attention to these women and their local and domestic contributions.
Since 1976, her quote has taken on a life of its own, appearing on T-shirts, coffee mugs, bumper stickers and such. Today, many people associate the slogan “Well-behaved women seldom (or sometimes written as “rarely”) make history” with feminism. Without the suffragists, we wouldn’t have been able to vote today. Without Rosa Parks, would I have to go to the back of the bus even though I’m not Caucasian?
Can you remember the achievement of the following “Famous First” women: Elizabeth Ann Seton, Victoria Claflin Woodhull, Edith Wharton, Amelia Earhart, Shirley Chisholm, Sally Jean Priesand, Dr. Sally K. Ride, Geraldine Ferraro, Janet Reno, and Hillary Clinton.