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“Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History”

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Delhi South chapter.

The quote, ‘”Well behaved women seldom make history” has been used time and again in popular culture, in the context of womxn icons and role models, from Beyoncé to Marilyn Monroe to Eleanor Roosevelt; to emphasise on their popularity and fame, their actions being recorded as feats in history. The quote, however, was penned by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich ironically not as popular as the phrase itself. The Pulitzer-Prize winning American historian describes her work as “a tribute to the silent work of ordinary people”, highlighting the “interconnection between public events and private experience”.

Gaining traction in the feminist circles, the quote seems to encourage strong attributes of womxn leaders, empowering them to take charge of their narratives and lead movements, be at the forefront of all historical events. Stemming from this notion of strong womxn leaders, the onus to be different, unfeminine, loud and assertive is placed upon womxn in everyday life; the feminist debate, on whether to acquire more ‘masculine’ traits to be taken seriously, sparked by this very concept. In the contemporary wave of feminism, young womxn are taught to be bold and assertive, to fight for their position in a man-dominated world. The idea of ‘taking charge’ then becomes a fight to the top, to be seen as someone who is ‘out there’ and making history, by creating tangible impact around them.

In the world of today, with an immense amount of political unrest being witnessed everywhere, it becomes imperative to draw on examples from our own daily lives. As students with privilege, most of our peers can be seen taking to social media activism and are witnessed participating in public protests in person or through art and expression, in their own capacity. On the surface, womxn taking control and leading these movements are recognised, and rightly so, for their participation and their contribution is highlighted. Be it a privileged, tokenistic position of influence or one brought to the limelight due to its situation of atrocity; these womxn leaders can be seen creating history, in the public eye.

However, coming back to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s contribution to the sphere of feminism and its debate, it is necessary to grasp the essence of the quote and to comprehend the underlying tenets of the notion being promoted. Coming from an academic paper about Pious Puritan women, what Ulrich attempts to emphasise is the varying nature of contribution by womxn, to every single sphere of the world. The need to acknowledge womxn participation from behind the scenes of powerful movements is highlighted by the work of Ulrich; importance given to private experiences over public ones.

Placing significance on the capabilities of each womxn to exert influence or to create impact, the quote becomes a mere statement depicting actual reality; that womxn who are well behaved are not remembered in history, and neither is their work. Pointing to the several contributors, like writers who have worked extensively on the subject, especially from the subaltern perspective, being overshadowed by womxn in positions of power and influence, realistically encapsulating the contemporary scenario.

Keeping this in mind, it becomes far greater to acknowledge the roles and contributions of womxn in their specific capacities, emboldening participation in every sphere; be it behind the scenes of powerful movements or in the form of creating an impact by sharing their thoughts with the ones around them. The very idea of ‘the quiet ones’ making a difference is to be embraced, and moving forward in this current wave of feminism, acceptance of all forms of allying dissent, contribution, and participation, has to be promoted.

The versatile nature of thought and the diversity of impact created by womxn varies from place to place, culture to culture, position of privilege and even their personalities; pushing for a far more inclusive, accommodative space, to be more reflective of the array of feminist concepts and ideas brought together by womxn belonging to different spheres. In the contemporary scenario, the notion that well- behaved women seldom make history has to now adapt and acknowledge that, although this may be the truth, well behaved women do help in making history; bringing about a concept of feminism from behind the scenes.

Gayatri Ahuja

Delhi South '21

Just another day-dreamer.