Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

Marilyn Monroe? Eleanor Roosevelt? Anne Boleyn? Laurel Thatcher Ulrich? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Observing a stream of tweets is a confusing way to learn about a quotation:

Well behaved women rarely make history – Marilyn Monroe
Well-behaved women rarely make history – Eleanor Roosevelt
Well behaved women rarely make history – Anne Boleyn
Well behaved women rarely make history – Unknown
Well behaved women never make history – Marilyn Monroe
Well-behaved women never make history – My senior Quote

Some of these quotes use the word “rarely” and others use the word “never”. Anne Boleyn was beheaded, and I doubt she wanted to enter the history books via an execution. Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of a version of this phrase known to QI appeared in an academic paper in the journal “American Quarterly” in 1976 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The statement used the word “seldom” instead of “rarely” or “never”:[ref] 1976 Spring, American Quarterly, Volume 28, Number 1, “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Start Page 20, Quote Page 20, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, (JSTOR) link [/ref]

Well-behaved women seldom make history; …

In 1976 Ulrich was a student at the University of New Hampshire, and she earned her Ph.D. in History there in 1980. She is now an eminent Pulitzer-Prize-winning Professor of early American history at Harvard University. The article containing the phrase was titled “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735”. The goal of the paper and much of Ulrich’s work was the recovery of the history of women who were not featured in history books of the past. She was interested in limning the lives of ordinary women who were considered “well-behaved” or “vertuous” (an alternate spelling of virtuous).

The 1990 book “A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812” by Ulrich reprinted and extensively commented on the diary entries of an ordinary midwife in Maine who also acted as a healer. The book illuminated the medical practices and sexual attitudes of the era and was awarded a Pulitzer-Prize and Bancroft Prize.

Here are additional selected citations.

The introductory sentences to Ulrich’s 1976 paper provide further context for her quotation. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

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.

Ulrich’s article explored the experiences of these “pious matrons” by using sources such as the following which are mentioned in her paper:

For the years between 1668 and 1735, Evans’ American Bibliography lists 55 elegies, memorials, and funeral sermons for females plus 15 other works of practical piety addressed wholly or in part to women.

In 2007 the Deseret News newspaper of Salt Lake City, Utah published an interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and she discussed the phrase she made famous. The popularity of the adage ultimately led her to write a 2007 book with the title “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History”:[ref] 2007 October 21, The Deseret News, Ulrich touts women in history by Dennis Lythgoe, Page E10, Salt Lake City, Utah. (NewsBank Access World News) [/ref]

… the phrase has appeared on T-shirts, placards, placemats, mugs, bumper stickers and greeting cards throughout the country, sometimes with attribution and sometimes without.

“It was a weird escape into popular culture,” Ulrich said by phone from her home in Cambridge, Mass. “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.”

The women in this 2007 book were pioneers and indeed would not usually be described as “well-behaved”:

So she has written about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton from the 19th century women’s movement; Harriet Tubman and other African-American women; Betty Friedan, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King for their 20th century contributions for.

As seen in the twitter messages at the beginning of this article the maxim has been altered and reassigned to other individuals over time. For example, in 2002 a book credited a version of the saying to Marilyn Monroe:[ref] 2002, Born on a Rotten Day: Illuminating and Coping with the Dark Side of the Zodiac, Hazel Dixon-Cooper, Page 42, Fireside: Simon and Schuster, New York. (Amazon webpage states: Release Date: January 7, 2002; The book says copyright 2003) (Google Books preview) [/ref]

Well-behaved women rarely make history. Marilyn Monroe (June 1)

In conclusion, this quotation was crafted by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and was published by 1976. In 2007 Ulrich wrote a book with a title based on the saying.

(Thanks to twitter user @Aphrodite44 “Love Goddess” who pointed out this quotation to QI and identified Laurel Thatcher Ulrich as its likely creator. Thanks also to @DeniseLescano whose use of the saying initiated the cascade that led to this entry. The question was constructed by QI based on tweets from other individuals.)

2 replies on “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History”

  1. For some reason I always attributed this saying (or something like it) to being something Mae West would have said.

  2. Jason DeVillains: Yes, in recent times the quotation has also been attributed to Mae West. Here is a joke that West used in her stage act according to Ed Sullivan (from the days when impresario Sullivan wrote a gossip column).

    Cite: 1938 May 4, Augusta Chronicle Hollywood by Ed Sullivan Page 4, Column 5, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
    [Begin excerpt]
    Mae West tells vaudeville audiences: “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted”
    [End excerpt]

    Variants of this quip can be traced back to the 1920s.

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