Although this statement has been misattributed to Eleanor Roosevelt (and some other well-known women), it was actually made by academic and historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in her 1976 article “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735;” published in the journal American Quarterly. Ulrich uses the introductory portion of her book titled Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History to explain how her statement made in an academic journal article (about “well-behaved women celebrated in Puritan funeral sermons,” p. xiii) ended up on t-shirts, bumper stickers, posters, and in many digital incarnations. Ulrich also discusses her original intention of the meaning of the statement in comparison to how others have interpreted it.
At the time (1970s) that Ulrich was writing her article, she writes in the book, the discipline of history was not very interested in the everyday ordinary lives of people—especially not interested in the ordinary lives of women. Her statement, “well-behaved women seldom make history,” was a commentary on how her academic discipline was not interested in the activities of “well-behaved women” because they were not considered worth studying. In that context, the words had a mostly literal meaning. As time has passed, Ulrich and other historians have moved the discipline of history to a place where the ordinary lives of people (women and men) have found an important and useful place in the study of history overall. I personally have always found it fascinating to read about the real lives and real actions of women and men going about their normal business at earlier periods in history. How did they do things such as laundry and cooking without all of the modern conveniences we rely on in the twenty-first century? (Historians have discovered the answers to those and related questions.)
To consider how other people have interpreted Ulrich’s statement, we need to look at the varying contexts and meanings of the main words and phrases in the statement. Ulrich used the phrase “well-behaved women” in a literal sense—meaning women behaving how it was considered proper and correct at the time—and that is how many other people have interpreted the phrase. However, many later users of the statement have made a distinction that Ulrich did not—are “well-behaved women” a good thing, a bad thing, or neutral? Since women throughout much of history have been encouraged (if not forced) to adopt behaviors sanctioned by men instead of having the freedom to do as they wished, being a “well-behaved woman”—and whether that was good or bad—was based on a person’s perspective. Several posters/graphics currently available featuring Ulrich’s statement have pictures of well-known women who were pioneers/leaders in various fields (including Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg). These women, for the most part, were not considered “well-behaved” by society as a whole, at least at the times they were making the contributions to history for which they became known.
So first we need to consider what it means if a woman is “well-behaved” or not—and whether that is a good thing, a bad thing, or something else. The other key to understanding the different context that many of us today think of when reading Ulrich’s statement lies in the meaning of the last two words: “make history.” What does it mean to “make history”? Ulrich argues in her work as a historian that a person does not need to be a pioneer, leader, and/or rule-breaker to “make history” and be worthy of remembrance. However, I would be willing to bet that when asked, most people would agree that “making history” means doing something important and/or ground-breaking—being the first to do something, to discover something previously unknown. Especially in the context of women in history, the phrase “make history” if often understood as “change history”—especially to change how things have been for women in the past as compared with men.
But we also need to remember that there have been women making history not only as the first woman to do something, but the first person to discover something or invent something: Marie Curie (work on radioactivity and discovery of the elements polonium and radium), Alice H. Parker (patent for gas furnace), and Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers (Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test). There is also quite a list of women who should have had a major or equal share in a discovery/invention--but the credit went only to a man/men at the time: including Jocelyn Bell Burnell (pulsars), Chien-Shiung Wu (Manhattan project and nuclear physics), Mary Anderson (windshield wipers), and Rosalind Franklin (DNA double helix). Sometimes the credit for their work went to their advisor(s) and/or coworkers, but other times the women’s work was stolen or ignored.
Luckily there are fewer and fewer instances left where a woman could still be the first woman to do [insert accomplishment], and it is much less likely a woman’s discovery/invention could be stolen by a man (simply due to gender issues). But when I read the statement “well-behaved women seldom make history,” I do think of the women who defied gender norms and expectations to make their marks on history and give all people—women and men—role models to follow and accomplishments to aspire to and appreciate.
Check out our full Women's History Month New to You @ the Library lists to learn more about the women listed above and others who have made contributions to science, history, literature, and more.