A quote, a book, a whole discipline!

One of the books I received this year for Christmas* was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, a book of essays on women in history. The title is her most-quoted soundbite, taken from an essay on gravestones which forms part of her first book, Good Wives.

The quote, with “rarely” used in place of “seldom”, shows up on t-shirts, bumperstickers, signature lines, and who knows where else. It is generally meant to convey that women shouldn’t be “well-behaved”, a rallying cry to speak up and be heard. Which, in a way, is missing the point.

Disclaimer: I’ve only read about 3 pages of Ulrich’s book of essays so far, so I don’t quite know how she feels about the wide-spread use of the quote. I also feel I should point out that I do consider myself a feminist, and believe that women and men should have an equal voice in their communities.

However, the thrust of the quote isn’t about the present, at least in my mind. Perhaps it’s because I read Good Wives as an undergraduate, and so have a vague memory of the context of the quote. I hear the quote as a reminder that the ordinary, lawful people of the past have very often been left out of History. National narratives tend towards the warriors and activists, the rulers and rebels. It is only recently (broadly speaking) that the well-behaved people became the subject of historical interest.

Thus, where many might read “make history” to mean “make historical change”, I read “make history” as “make it into the historical record”.  What many people might not understand is that historical events often would not happen without those well-behaved, ordinary people. Individually they might not have made an impact, but collectively they can. Millions of ordinary, well-behaved citizens made history by performing their civic duty: they voted, and in voting helped elect the first African-American President of the United States.  It’s not that I object to people thinking of the quote in one light, but I would love to help people see the social history interpretation.

That’s all for now. I will try to remember to post again when I’ve finished reading the introduction (and the rest of the book).

* I also received Georgette Heyer’s Pistols for Two – hooray for historical fiction!

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5 comments

  1. Absolutely. Remember too Sheila Rowbotham HIDDEN FROM HISTORY which was an important read in the 1960s.A timely piece.

    1. I’ve not read Hidden from History. Thank you for the recommendation.

  2. I think that’s a cool take on the quote, and may have been what she meant originally, but I think in the broader context of _women’s_ history, you have to acknowledge all of its meanings.

    Women are far more law abiding than men are. They are also far more likely to conform to social convention. That’s not always a good thing, and so I like the quote for both reasons.

    1. A very good point. I do like the quote in its adopted sense, too. I just would like it if people understood both meanings.

      After all, the women who conform to social conventions are also important to the study of history.

      1. True. And as your sister mentioned, what a sad commentary that is on what history chooses to record. I’m not of the opinion that we’ve achieved full equality yet, but I do think we’ve come a very long way, and I’m fascinated by the women who had to pay a price for not falling in line. Sometimes that price was notoriety, but sometimes it was worse than that. This morning, I was reading how one of the few clues we’ve been able to uncover about ancient Numidia comes to us by way of a woman’s skeleton. She died with an iron collar around her neck, chained to a wall, and the inscription translated to: Runaway whore.

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