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!