October 23, 2015 | Author: Suzannah Rowntree
Public Domain, CC 2.5, 3.5 wiki
“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” It’s a common feminist slogan. The suggestion, however tongue-in-cheek, seems to be that for a woman to make headlines, turn heads, or alter the course of human events, it’s necessary for her to misbehave somehow, presumably as defined against the social norms of traditional patriarchal society.
Like most propaganda, this slogan is hard to argue with. It wins a neat ideological victory for the feminists, in one fell swoop annexing practically every famous woman who has ever lived—candidates from the reasonable (Jezebel, Mary Stuart, Susan B Anthony) to the wildly implausible (Saint Margaret of Scotland, Jane Austen, Corrie ten Boom). It’s also a cautionary tale for young women reminiscent of Gail Carson Levine’s young adult novel Ella Enchanted—Don’t be too obedient. Or, presumably, you’ll never make history.
The origin of the slogan is actually quite illuminating. According to Quote Investigator (quoteinvestigator.com/2012/11/03/well-behaved-women/), the line was first coined by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in a 1976 scholarly paper appearing in the journal “American Quarterly.” Now a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and professor of early American History at Harvard, Ulrich was then a student at the University of New Hampshire. The first sentences of her paper, “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735”, read:
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.
To Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, such women are not memorable and therefore unlikely to make history. (more…)