Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History

…But they should.

“Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History”

-Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 1976

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Young feminist historian that I am, I have always enjoyed this quote. It is only improved by the fact that its originator is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the fantastic Harvard historian and material culturalist, and author of A Midwife’s Tale, The Age of Homespun, as well as other books.

For years, I saw this line as an endorsement of bad behavior – it suggested that breaking the rules was laudable; the only way to do great deeds, and leave one’s mark on the world. It was permission to misbehave.

Last week, however, I realized that interpretation was deeply one-sided. A colleague and I were preparing a presentation we were giving a few days later at the New York State Council on Social Studies. The topic was “Army Women* in the American Revolution,” and our plan was to share research I had done into the roles these soldier’s wives often played within armies of the era (working as laundresses, nurses, etc), and the ways their lives were recorded. After that my coworker would share curriculum material she had created to help bring some of this information into the classroom. Our impetus was an abiding frustration that “Women’s Revolutionary War History” often revolves around a small handful of women who participated in the war effort in traditionally male roles, such as Deborah Sampson, who hid her gender in order to enlist, and Mary Ludwig Hays, who manned a cannon at the battle of Monmouth.

Both these women effectively made history by misbehaving.

The women we were planning on presenting on however, were the hundreds of women who followed their husbands on campaign, and sweated, laundered, nursed, and marched behind the baggage carts with children on their backs. They had played approved roles within the armies they followed. For that, they have been largely left out of the historical record. The minimal mentions of them we do have often still revolve around rule-breaking: in orderly books of the era, army women are told off, ordered around, and threatened with being thrown out of camp for selling alcohol, for demanding higher wages, for walking anywhere but at the back of the line when the army was on the move, etc…

While driving home from work after spending the day assembling a slideshow for our presentation, Ulrich’s quote popped into my head, and I saw that truly I had missed the point: it is not for me to change my actions – to misbehave – in order to find my role in the historical record (though surely this does have merit). Rather, my efforts should be directed at the historical record itself, so that well behaved women might at last be represented by our history books.


4 thoughts on “Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History

  1. What a brilliant interpretation! Love it! I admit I never thought about this angle, though I portray a woman disguised as a man in order to enlist and find that a useful platform for discussion with young people of both genders.


  2. I love the inversion of the quote’s “most common” interpretation that you explain here! I’ve found that representing the “ordinary” and “well-behaved” opens such a great door for visitors beginning to ask “who would I have been then? What would I have done?” And that opens up such awesome discussions of gender, race, ethnicity, and how people then–and now–react to and engage with the changes around them. It’s cool stuff. It’s well-behaved stuff…most of the time 🙂


  3. YES YES YES! I braced myself when I saw the post title as the common, out-of-context interpretation obviously came to mind, but you didn’t go there!

    Rather, my efforts should be directed at the historical record itself, so that well behaved women might at last be represented by our history books.

    I very much agree. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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