Confession: every time I see this, I cringe.
When I ask my students to reflect on whether this popular phrase is a useful way of thinking about women's history, their response is usually some variation on, "Kind of. But..." They point out that this can be read as a statement encouraging women, in the context of popular feminism today, that they don't have to conform to rigid gender codes -- defying the restrictive standards femininity is Good! So the mugs and tee-shirts become about empowerment. But when we actually start to think about the phrase as a notion or theory of history, some wrinkles appear. As one of my students put it, this seems to set up a troubling binary: you are either a "well-behaved" woman who will be of zero interest to "history" or you are a rebel, the kind of woman who breaks barriers and gets noticed. What about everyone who falls between? Those women and their lives and struggles aren't captured in that phrase.
My students also pointed out that the phrase skips over the more interesting question: What does it mean to be "well-behaved" and how has that changed? The premise of most academic scholarship today is that gender roles, like other social roles, are historically and culturally constructed. They change. But neither are they rigidly fixed within any historical moment. That's what makes history so complicated: everyday folk are always in the the process of negotiating and challenging the rules and boundaries and expectations of their world. Sometimes this happens in little ways that don't exactly "make" history but do make historical change, something as small and seemingly insignificant as fertility control. (As the historian Susan Klepp has argued, the biggest untold story of America in the age of Revolutions is that at some point in the late 1700s, women begun to restrict their family size, setting a host of other social and cultural and economic changes in motion. Her book, Revolutionary Conceptions is an extended exploration of how and why that came about.)
What bugs me the most about "Well-behaved women..." is the "make history" part. As it stands, that phrase just doesn't make sense in the context of the politics of women's history. The politics of women's history IS the politics of "making history."
Whose story matters? Whose actions matter? Whose life matters? These are the questions that women's historians in the 1960s and 70s were asking. While histories of women reach back, in the written historical tradition of the West, to Christine de Pizan's 15th-century history, The Book of the City of Ladies, as the scholar Gerda Lerner pointed out in her 1975 article in Feminist Studies, "Placing Women in History: Definitions and Challenges,"much of the work of women's history prior to the mid-20th century was in the mode of either "celebratory" or "contribution" history: women were leaders, too! women did important things, too! women contributed to major movements, too! Women's history scholarship in the 1960s and 70s furthered the commitments of social history in seeking to understand the lives and experiences of "everyday people" -- as well as the systems of gender and race and social status that shaped the parameters of those lives.
But now I'm getting lecture-y and that's not something I like to do in my blog posts. If you want to get a sense of the kinds of questions a great social historian not of the U.S. asks, check out this profile of the classicist Mary Beard from the New Yorker. (Also: I have got to read Pompei: The Life of a Town.)
In short, the author of our quote, Laurel Ulrich, was one of these game-changing social historians working specifically on the history of women and religion in colonial America. She's also the author of a personal favorite of mine, The Age of Homespun. In it she uses material objects--a cupboard, a swatch of embroidery--to explore the changing texture of women's lives in America from the 17th through the early 19th century. You'd be amazed what she can tell us about changing legal and family structures, trade systems, migration patterns, the dislocations of war, and of course, everyday life and identity from a quilt, a basket, or a pocketbook. Read it. It's great.
Scholars like Ulrich were and still are dedicated to challenging the terms of what "makes history." And that is why whenever I see something like this--or worse, like this--I cringe. While the lives and stories of witches and rabble-rousers do matter, we should not pay attention to them to the exclusion of everyone else. We also need to make sure, when analyzing the world out of which said rabble-rousers came, that we fully understand the context within which their misbehaving was understood as misbehaving.
But her point goes even further: we should be paying close critical attention to what we as scholars consider important, thinking carefully about the questions that drive our scholarship, while also looking broadly and critically at the sources upon which we base our work.
When you read the quote in its original context, as the introduction to an analysis of ministerial literature at the turn of the eighteenth century, you'll see that this is precisely Ulrich's point. She's also being, I think, a bit flip. The statement is a rhetorical gesture to make a point about our gaze as historians. And she proceeds, through her broad survey of her sources (because Cotton Mather should not be the last word, guys) to expand our understanding of what it meant to be a pious woman in late-17th and early-18th-century New England. She uncovers changing notions of Christian womanhood that lie between the vague (and relatively meaningless) shorthand "well-behaved" and the witches and Antinomians (i.e. Anne Hutchinson) who tend to get a lot more play.
I'll leave you with the quote in context and let you decide for yourself if you agree with my reading of what she's saying. (And make sure you check out Ulrich's own examination in her 2008 book Well-Behaved Women Seldon Make History, of the popular culture success of her "runaway" quote, along with some fascinating episodes in the long history of doing women's history.)
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. Most historians, considering the domestic by definition irrelevant, have simply assumed the pervasiveness of similar attitudes in the seventeenth century. Others, noting the apologetic tone of Anne Bradstreet and the banishment of Anne Hutchinson, have been satisfied that New England society, while it valued marriage and allowed women limited participation in economic affairs, discouraged their interest in either poetry or theology. For thirty years no one has bothered to question Edmund Morgan’s assumption that a Puritan wife was considered “the weaker vessel in both body and mind” and that “her husband ought not to expect too much from her.” John Winthrop’s famous letter on the insanity of bookish Mistress Hopkins has been the quintessential source: “…if she had attended her household affairs, and such things as belong to women, and not gone out of her way and calling to meddle in such things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger, etc., she had kept her wits.”
 The Winthrop quote appears in Morgan (p.44) as in many lesser summaries of Puritan attitudes toward women…