“Well behaved women seldom make history”

By Elizabeth Prata

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

This was a bumper sticker adorning the car ahead of me at a red light. A long light. I had time to read it and think about it and then get steamed about it. Of course next to that bumper sticker there was a ‘coexist’ bumper sticker. How can those two be reconciled? If a women isn’t being well-behaved, she is being rebellious. And if she is being rebellious, she is not co-existing peacefully with those around her, is she? Illogical.

In any case, I thought that the bumper sticker’s premise was that for women to be recorded in history, they must have had to do something daring or against societal expectations, or had done something ‘out there’ in some way. This, I had mused, is illogical too, because there are plenty of women in history who were simply good at what they did, and that was why they got into the history books. Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Marie Curie, Queen Elizabeth II, Sally Ride… Would NASA have chosen a rebellious upstart to be part of their space program? Of course not.

Curious now, I looked into the origins behind the bumper sticker and I was surprised by what I found.

The phrase comes from Harvard Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Ulrich identifies herself both as a feminist and a Mormon. It was her 1976 little-known academic paper published in American Quarterly called “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735” where the now famous bumper sticker phrase was first seen.

Massachusetts, where Harvard is located, was populated in the 1600s by deeply religions Puritans who had emigrated from England and the Netherlands to worship God freely, something they could not do on the Continent.

Ulrich looked into the lives of ‘ordinary’ Puritan women, especially midwives, through their own diaries. The ordinary, the mundane, the repetitive nature of the life, consisting of hard work mainly at home, drew Ulrich’s attention. She expanded her paper into into a 1990 book called, “A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812.” The staying power and viral nature of the adage she had coined back in 1976 led to Ulrich eventually write a book in 2007 called by the very phrase she had coined: “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History.” Here is an excerpt from the 1976 paper:

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.

It turns out, that Ulrich wanted to simply promote the lives of the Puritan and the 1800s women which history had forgot.

Ulrich noted that though women were nearly invisible in society, only recording when they were born, married, or died, their standing in spiritual realms was highly elevated.

…this circumscribed social position was not reflected in the spiritual sphere, that New England’s ministers continued to uphold the oneness of men and women before God, that in their understanding of the marriage relationship they moved far toward equality, that in all their writings they stressed the dignity, intelligence, strength, and rationality of women even as they acknowledged the physical limitations imposed by their reproductive role. …  Source 1976 paper, “Vertuous Women Found”

Huh. Go figure. A Mormon Harvard feminist professor who got it right. As for the popularity of the phrase I’d seen on the bumper sticker, Ulrich said that its ambiguity (when taken out of its context) accounts for its appeal. In other words, you can interpret it any way you want. Which is exactly what I had done at the red light when I first read it.

My objective when I wrote those words was not to lament their oppression but to give them a history. … [T]he ambiguity of the slogan surely accounts for its appeal. To the public-spirited, it is a provocation to action, a less pedantic way of saying that if you want to make a difference in the world, you can’t worry too much about what people think. To a few it might say “Good girls get no credit.” To a lot more, “Bad girls have more fun.” … Source: “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History” (Knopf, September 2007)

Well there you go.

There’s one more thing. The premise that ‘well behaved women seldom make history’ is supposed to spark a knee-jerk reaction that it’s a bad thing not to make history. Like, “Hey! I wanna get into history! Why can’t I be in the history books?! The biblical worldview would have a response to this in several respects. First, woman already are in the only history book that matters, the Bible. Well-behaved and rebellious women are both recorded throughout the pages of that holy Book. From Jezebel to Esther, from Mary to the Woman at the Well, women are recorded in biblical history doing what they do as humans.

Secondly, women already are recorded…in the Lamb’s Book of Life. There is NO OTHER book than that precious book one should aspire to have our names written.

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. (Revelation 20:12).

Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:27).

If you have repented and believed in the risen Christ, then us well behaved women are all set with names written in the Lamb’s book. All other books will fade away. But not Jesus’ words, those are the only words and the only history that matters.

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:35).

well behaved

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