We’ve all seen the phrase “Well-Behaved Women Seldom (or ‘Rarely’) Make History”. It’s on inspirational quote pages, coffee mugs and t-shirts. It’s basically an entire market on Etsy. Mainstream feminism has taken that quote and ran with it, using it as a rallying cry for sensational change and rule-breaking. Those things are great and have their place in history, but that is not what Laurel Thatcher Ulrich meant when she said it in her 1976 scholarly article, “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature 1668-1735.”
In writing this scholarly article, Ulrich set out to examine how domestic women in New England were constantly overlooked by historians and practically seen as irrelevant in the grand scheme of history. Ulrich wanted to challenge this perspective and provide historical evidence to support these claims. Ulrich went through court documents, birth certificates, death certificates and famously quoted documents of the time to look into what the entire document said about women in that period.
That is what we are doing today. We are looking beyond the infamous quote by Ulrich and into the contents of what she was actually articulating when she said that “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
Ulrich based her argument around dismantling the good girl/bad girl stereotypes and insisting that history does in fact happen in those intimate places that domestic women inhabit — libraries, churches, homes, etc. Everyday existence creates history, and that’s something that historians have had difficulty capturing in their studies.
The point is that both the well-behaved women and the unconventional women existed and impacted history. It’s simply that the former has not been recognized for its impact. There is a duality to women’s stories in history, two aspects of womanhood that must be explored, and neither should go unnoticed.
Even social movements based on domesticity, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, fought to change the law in numbers. This fight led to their name in history, not the domestic status of many of the women involved.
Sometimes, it is necessary to break rules and laws. It’s an outlet and a means of change. But, history does not live just in the big moments but also in the small, seemingly mindless ones.
Ulrich later wrote another book, “A Midwife’s Tale,” in 1990 about a midwife named Martha Moor Ballard. She describes how she makes history just by documenting everyday living in her diary.
Though we have not necessarily changed the course of history through outright defiance, we are still creating history every day. Writing a text to a friend, posting on social media or influencing the social circle in your life creates historical significance that is worth being studied.