Gender and the Law Prof Blog

Editor: Tracy A. Thomas
University of Akron School of Law

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History

Some History Behind Women's History Month, exploring the origins ofthe popular phrase, and plaque  in my office,  "Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History." 
The quote has been attributed to everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Eleanor Roosevelt, but its origin comes from an academic paper by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who in 1976 was a student at the University of New Hampshire. Her focus was on the history of early American women who were not featured in history books of the past. Her paper began,
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; against Antinomians and witches, these pious matrons have had little chance at all.
By 2007 her phrase became what now would be called a "meme," and in a newspaper interview, Ulrich said,
It was a weird escape into popular culture. I got constant e-mails about it, and I thought it was humorous. Then I started looking at where it was coming from. Once I turned up as a character in a novel -- and a tennis star from India wore the T-shirt at Wimbledon. It seemed like a teaching moment -- and so I wrote a book using the title.

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