Category Archives: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

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. Could you examine 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”: 1

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.

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  1. 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