“Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History” Doesn’t Actually Mean What You Think It Means

“Well-behaved women seldom make history” has been used to justify casting off gender norms in pursuit of progress. Instead, the quote’s author meant that the unacknowledged life is no less extraordinary.

By Alina Clough3 min read
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Shutterstock/ - Yuri A

America is in an era of reexamining gender roles with “Well-behaved women seldom make history” plastered on its bumpers, tote bags, and coffee mugs. The line has evolved into a feminist rallying cry, one that those reclaiming terms like “nasty women” take to prove their point: being nice gets women nowhere. 

It’s funny, though – the quote was never intended to mean that the only route to an exceptional female life was misbehaving. The historian who wrote it actually meant the opposite: that exceptional female lives rarely go acknowledged in history books. As we (hopefully) hit the end of the “millennial girlboss” era, should we accept the fact that we’ve discounted the quiet contributions of women the same way we’ve misunderstood the quote?

One Well-Behaved Woman Makes History

In 1976, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich penned the now exhausted quote “well-behaved women seldom make history” in an academic article. She was studying Puritan women, trying to ascertain what a definition of female piety looked like in their culture. The only problem? Unlike the comparative excitement of witch hunts and heretics, there wasn’t much of a reason to write about women who weren’t actively fighting their communities. As a result, most of those were only written about, if at all, in the sermons of their own funerals. 

The article, says Thatcher Ulrich, wasn’t meant to celebrate these women’s quiet lives, but it also wasn’t meant to belittle them. Instead, she wanted to remember them in history not as monks or martyrs but as women whose lives were just as extraordinary for having been lived in service of their families and communities. “They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard ...They never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been,” her article explained. “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

Thatcher Ulrich also says we can misremember historically significant women: “[W]ell-behaved women can make history. But when they do, they often lose their reputation for being well-behaved.” In this way, misbehaving is really just a consequence, not a precondition, of making history, both in that the first woman to radically change how things are done is, necessarily, misbehaving, but also because we’ll more likely remember her that way the more radical her actions are. In other words, it’s not that well-behaved women aren’t changing history for the better, it’s just that they probably won’t be remembered for it. 

Well-behaved women make good lives far more often than poorly behaved women make history. 

A Girlboss Anthropology

“Misbehaving” also isn’t a guaranteed way to change history for the better, something modern feminism seems to keep confusing. Rejecting specific female gender roles because they’re maligned or too tightly defined, like the first women to wear jeans, run marathons, or go to college, can be necessary steps to refining our idea of femininity over time. Rejecting all gender norms outright, though, is throwing away our femininity in pursuit of a goal we’ve never stopped to define. The result is that we end up treating femininity like something that needs to be cured or progressed out of. Becoming men shouldn’t be the end goal of feminism.

Women have been trying to cure themselves of femininity for a while now, and it’s largely made us miserable. From trying to wrangle our reproductive systems into submission to hookup culture to making our careers look more and more like those of men, it’s safe to say the “girl boss” has had her moment. Millennials especially have been one of the first generations to have relative parity in the workplace, universal access to birth control from the start of puberty, and now the ability to outsource even their pregnancies. After finally achieving all this freedom, they may now be making a U-turn.

Helen Roy, host of the Girlboss: Interrupted podcast, says that the “millennial girlboss” is slowly waking up to the downsides of living for their own legacies. She attributes much of this wakeup call to the coronavirus pandemic, which she says highlighted for many women how much they had been placing their identities in their careers, just how fragile those careers really were, and in some cases, the other things in their lives they’d been rejecting. The result, she says, is a hyper-anxious generation of women who feel like the main thing they can be celebrated for isn’t who they are but what impact they can make in a boardroom.

Closing Thoughts

Well-behaved women make good lives far more often than poorly behaved women make history. There’s nothing wrong with making history, but being a rebel without a cause is an aimless pursuit. Live your life for the people around you rather than for history books you’ll never get to read. If you’re using your time on the planet in pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness, you’ll inevitably leave the world in a better place than you found it, rather than trying to leave yourself the longest legacy possible. There’s a whole lot more to life than making history.

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