We’ve all seen the above phrase plastered on bumper stickers, key chains, and mugs, right? That famous slogan comes from women’s history pioneer Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and a paper she published in 1976 about Puritan funeral services. The phrase became a pop-culture sensation, often used in the context that only women who break the rules and push the boundaries will make history. You see it tied to figures like Cleopatra and Anne Boleyn.
But did you know those words weren’t actually about the bad girls of history?
Check out this plenary address by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich from the 2012 AASLH Annual Meeting. For Ulrich, when she published that in 1976, she was challenging her fellow historians to do better history. To stop looking at the “exceptional women of history” and look for the women’s history that’s all around us.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Midwife’s Tale, Ulrich recreates the life of post-colonial America through the diary of a Maine midwife, Martha Ballard. Through her painstaking research of early American documents—marriage certificates, death certificates, house hold inventories—and combing through a woman’s diary, Ulrich brought to life the people and time of early America in a way few historians had done before her. The work was featured on American Experience.
In 2008, she published her own version of Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, referencing the popularity of that slogan and offering readers a chance to ask new questions about the nature of history and how it is made.
Well-behaved women do make history, we’ve just been looking in the wrong places.
Ulrich has made a career out of looking for women’s history in diaries, court records, newspaper articles beyond the front page, quilts, needlework, household economies, etc.—and demonstrating how that history relates to a broader dialogue.
For Women’s History Month, challenge yourself to look around your museum or site for the hidden women’s history and what stories are waiting to be told!