Listen To Article
When it comes to housework, no one notices it unless you don’t do it. In 1976, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich published an article in American Quarterly entitled “Virtuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1688-1735.” Ulrich wrote this, “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, an academic historian of early America, remarked that “my objective was not to lament their oppression but to give them a history.”
Ulrich’s quote on well-behaved women took on a life of its own and is evident on many objects from stickers to shirts and even protest signs. A few years ago, I found a placard at Home Goods with the quote on it. Journalist Kay Mills in her book From Pocahontas to Power Suits, altered the quote to read “Well-behaved women rarely make history,” but the idea behind the quote remains potent. It is difficult to find sources on regular everyday people in the past. We tend to find sources of people, and women more particularly, only when they step outside of the bounds of prescribed behavior.
According to Ulrich, “the ‘well-behaved women’ quote works because it plays into longstanding stereotypes about the invisibility and the innate decorum of the female sex. Many people think women are less visible in history than men because their bodies impel them to nurture. Their job is to bind the wounds, stir the soup, and bear the children of those whose mission it is to fight wars, rule nations, and define the cosmos.” But not all who make these arguments see women as inconsequential. In fact, many venerate the contributions of women as wives, caregivers, and mothers. Yet they also make assumptions about the constancy of domestic roles over the centuries, assuming that the women who perform those domestic roles have no history.
“If women occupy the fixed center of life, and if history is seen as a linear progression of public events, a changing panorama of wars and kingdoms, then only those who through outrageous behavior, divine intervention, or sheer genius step into the stream of public consequence have a history.” This is why we tend to only remember the women who show up in the court records or newspapers for notorious reasons. Ulrich concludes that the problem with this argument is “not only that is limits women. It also limits history.” After all, good historians are not just concerned with famous people but also with the larger transformations in human history. Small actions by larger numbers of people are also effective methods of change. But history is reliant on written sources. Until recently, most women (and men) were illiterate. “As a consequence, their activities were recorded, if at all, in other people’s writing. People who caused trouble might show up in court records, newspapers, or their masters’ diaries. Those who quietly went about their lives were either forgotten, seen at a distance, or idealized into anonymity. Even today, publicity favors those who make—or break—laws.”
The leaders and shakers and headline makers will always be seen in the historical record. But perhaps we could spend more time reclaiming the regular women and people who were, for the most part, well-behaved.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, (New York: Vintage Books, 2007).