I was walking past the display of new books in our library here when a title caught my eye:

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

The book is by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. My immediate gut reaction was “ain’t it so.” And not just for women, but all groups that seek to break the mold. Significant social change results from people who make waves, who aren’t willing to accept the status quo, and are willing to ruffle some feathers. It turns out that social systems seem to want to reproduce themselves in ways that perpetuate the advantages of those in power.

The phrase originated in an article Ulrich published in 1976, and according to the preface of the book, now appears on bumperstickers, totebags, t-shirts, websites, and more. As she points out, there is a certain level of ambiguity in the phrase, which might account for some of its appeal. Some interpret it as “Good girls get no credit” while others see it as “Bad girls have more fun.” (Neither of which fits exactly with my initial sense of the phrase.)

Regarding her response to how the phrase has evolved different meanings to different people, Ulrich writes:

When I wrote that “well-behaved women seldom make history,” I was making a commitment to help recover the lives of otherwise obscure women. I had no idea that thirty years later, my own words would come back to me transformed.

Of course the expression “make history” can be interpreted in other ways as well, and there are certainly those who do make history, women and men alike, who could be categorized as “well-behaved” but the underlying truth remains. Those who usher in significant social change can expect resistance.

I have not yet read the book (I only just now carried it upstairs in the library to write this post), but it does look like an interesting read. For a little more info, here’s a link to an article on Slate, “The Women’s History Boom,” and here’s another from The New York Times, “We’re No Angels.”

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