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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).

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • Pam Adams says:

    Rebecca, Many women fortunately realize that history is made by all of us and that women should play a larger part in this transformation of our culture into one that follows our Lord in all things. This involves windows and cooking but it also involves being a good doctor, an excellent novelist, and a professor who guides us all. Thank you Rebecca for being a guider.

  • Beth Jammal says:

    Thank you for bringing to mind the invisible mothers and grandmothers who influence the movers and shakers of this world. God didn’t create all to be leaders outside, but to do His best work, inside the home.

  • RW says:

    Teaching a course in local history on the high school level helped to convince me that we teach history incorrectly. Teaching local will lead to the national and world. Teaching local informs us of the contributions of those everyday, often uneducated people, who built the world we live in. Everyday people invented the garbage dumpster and the machinery that developed whole segments of the agricultural economy that we benefit from today. Reading a novel like So Big by Edna Ferber, which tells the story of the development of South Holland, Illinois, demonstrates the power of hard working, under the radar, women in our world. We need to highlight the work of the everyday people (men and women) who contributed so much to our world and God’s kingdom.

  • Carl Fictorie says:

    Ironically, the blog on Christian Scholars’ Review for today ( is a story about a boy who survived a plague and other hurdles to eventually achieve greatness despite his humble and troubled beginnings. The author, a mathematics professor, is using it as an encouragement to his class to strive to be faithful in developing God’s gifts. The boy was Isaac Newton, who certainly taught us all much about the laws of creation. What’s important here is that there is mention that he was so passionate about his work that he would often forget to eat. The author stops short of claiming this is a virtue, but the implication is that it was not bad. What is not mentioned is that someone prepared and brought him that tray of food day after day. Perhaps some historical record notes who this person was. Maybe a housekeeper, perhaps a slave. I don’t know. While academics often credit that they stand on the shoulders of other academics to do their work, they rarely mention the hidden people who make their meals, clean their houses, and do all the mundane things to enable their work. It seems to me that your story gets to the heart of what it means to faithfully develop God’s gifts much better than the story of Isaac Newton.

  • gregory van den berg says:

    Again, another essay without any Scriptural support. Will anyone forget how the line of David begins with a woman, Rahab. Then continues with Ruth. Without these women of faith, there would not be a line of David ergo no Christ. How about Esther? She single handedly with great faith in God saved the Jews from complete annihilation. These are shakers of world. Not mothers or wives of influential men. These men are not part of the true world, the Kingdom of God. Remember mention all the women mentioned in the New Testament. What about the wives of the great men of faith i.e Moses, David, Joseph, Jacob, Abraham etc. Those women were the true shakers of the world. Their faith infused their husbands to changing the world in an eternal sense. The essays in this journal are truly full of sentimental slop. Bring forth the good news of Jesus not what is being written. As Paul wrote all he wanted to know was Christ crucified, risen, and sitting at the right hand of God.

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