The New Tropes of Women’s History are as Damaging as the Old

Labels and stereotypes, long used to subordinate and marginalize women in history, need to be opposed, not embraced.

Victoria Martínez

I have grown to hate the quote, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”[1]

Oft-repeated, frequently misattributed, and almost always taken out of context,[2] the now-famous words first appeared in the opening paragraph of a 1976 scholarly article written by American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. What has been overlooked is that the rest of Ulrich’s article went on to brilliantly qualify the statement.

In her analysis of sermon literature in early Puritan America, Ulrich demonstrates that there is “ample evidence”[3] that women and their various accomplishments and abilities were publicly praised in their own time, with notable Puritan ministers like Cotton Mather demonstrating “a genuine concern with equality.”[4] She argues that the reason these “well-behaved women” have seldom made history is because historians have ignored this evidence, and instead have focused on amplifying accounts of the “antinomians and witches.”[5]

Without the proper context, the quote has become something that appears to empower women, but actually feeds into a misogynistic tradition of recording history that has served women extremely poorly. It reinforces the notion that women who have been granted a place in history earned that place by “misbehaving,” as children or dogs might do. And it obliterates the reality that it has never been women’s “behavior” that has determined their place (or lack thereof) in history, but rather cultural hegemonies dominated by powerful men.

“What we know of the past experience of women has been transmitted largely through the reflections of men: how we see and interpret what we know about women has been shaped for us through a value system defined by men,” wrote women’s history pioneer Gerda Lerner in 1976, the same year Ulrich’s article was published.[6]

Unsurprisingly, hegemonic histories have always benefitted from narratives that place and confine women[7] in fixed categories – usually involving an implicit or explicit positive/negative binary – which strip them of a full and nuanced identity. The cultural tropes that have arisen from this practice – the woman behind the great man, the fallen woman, the domestic goddess, the vengeful shrew, etc. – have never done women any favors, and were never intended to. In the narrow, dark spaces grudgingly given to women in written history, they have served to “…entrench a kind of cultural and political thinking that helps stabilize institutional power.”[8]

Far from being a thing of the past, however, this is being perpetuated in our own time, including by some who genuinely seek to liberate women in history from obscurity. When writers broadly categorize and “market” women in history using terms like rebels, bad-asses, shady ladies, rejected princesses, etc., they are – unconsciously or otherwise – perpetuating the patriarchal tradition of distorting the perception of these women and denying their agency as independent historical figures. Even if the usage is intended as somehow redemptive, instead of liberating women from the traditional narrative of history – i.e. that which has been recorded predominantly by and from the perspective of men – it inadvertently tightens the chains.

An excerpt from a speech given by Audre Lorde (pictured) at The Second Sex Conference in 1979. (Public domain image of Lorde)

By what standards have these supposedly “new” categories been defined in the first place? From whose perspective were they considered rebellious, bad, shady, rejected, etc.? Undeniably, they originated in and belong to the hegemonic discourses and histories that have long suppressed and oppressed women. Continuing to frame women from this perspective is, I believe, a massive mistake.

To define a woman in history as a “rebel,” for instance, is to construct her significance based on the values of the male dominated power structure of the past, rather than on her own agency and actions. Though such a woman may indeed have been a rebel by strict definition, such a characterization limits her place in history as it always has been: as a subordinate to and a construct of men.

These categorizations also perpetuate and affirm the deliberate exclusions of women in recorded history, such as those Ulrich was really referring to when she spoke of “well-behaved women.” Far from a pejorative, the term referred to women Cotton Mather and others publicly recognized as capable and even equal or superior to men in many respects. As scholar Barbara J. Berg has written, primary sources show that Puritan men like Cotton Mather and others, “bestowed lavish praise on feminine accomplishments” and “extolled females of intellectual excellence.”[9]

These women would certainly have “made history” if those writing it had wanted them to. But they didn’t suit the purpose, so the primary sources were ignored, and the women were relegated to history as the “well-behaved women” who didn’t warrant any notice, while the “antinomians and witches” became the dominant representation of women in history. 

I argue that by continuing to apply such arbitrary and historically-loaded labels to women in history, the historical importance of countless women continues to be minimized and overlooked. Though it may be done with the best of intentions by individuals genuinely devoted to women’s history, it serves a similar purpose and produces a similar effect as it has in the past. In its new incarnation, it perpetuates not only distortions of women in history, but also the sexism and misogyny that underpin them. As scholar Kevin Kumashiro has written:

“…oppression originates in discourse, and, in particular, in the citing of particular discourses, which frame how people think, feel, act and interact. In other words, oppression is the citing of harmful discourses and the repetition of harmful histories.”[10]

Although the use of such tropes may well be unconscious and, more than likely, justified as an attempt to attract new devotees to women’s history, it serves the damaging effect of reaffirming women as one-dimensional stereotypes. Even when the content is good, the categorization itself is still a reduction, a simplification, and a poor bit of marketing, the likes of which is rarely if ever seen in comparable histories of men.

Throughout her career, Gerda Lerner wrote about the need to step fully outside patriarchal views and assumptions about history in order to place women on equal terms within it. She warned:

“While most historians are aware of the fact that their findings are not value-free and are trained to check their biases by a variety of methods, they are as yet quite unaware of their own sexist bias and, more important, of the sexist bias which pervades the value system, the culture, and the very language within which they work.”[11]

Though much progress has been made in the field of women’s history since 1976, when Lerner wrote these words and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich penned her now-famous line, we continue to be mired in and hampered by a variety of counterproductive practices. The tools of oppression will serve women in history no better now than they ever have, no matter how well-intentioned. Only by actively creating and using techniques and practices that are oppositional to hegemonic discourses and histories will women in history receive the respect and attention they deserve.

***

Featured image: Detail of “Orestes Pursued by the Furies” (1921) by John Singer Sargent. In the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


[1] Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735.” American Quarterly, 28, 1, 1976, 20.

[2] Incorrectly attributed to, among others, Marilyn Monroe and Eleanor Roosevelt (read more about the misattributions here).

[3] Ulrich 21

[4] ibid 40

[5] ibid 20-21

[6] Lerner, Gerda. “The Majority Finds its Past.” (Originally published in Current History, 1976). Reprinted in The Majority Finds its Past: Placing Women in History, 2005 edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005, 127.

[7] The same is true for other marginalized groups of people, including people of color, indigenous peoples, and LGBTQ people.

[8] Fay, Elizabeth A. Eminent Rhetoric: Language, Gender, and Cultural Tropes, ed. Donaldo Macedo. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1994, 5.

[9] Berg, Barbara J. The Remembered Gate: Origins of American Feminism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, 14-15.

[10] Kumashiro, Kevin K. “Toward a Theory of Anti-Oppressive Education.” Review of Educational Research. Spring 2000, 70, I, 40.

[11] Lerner, Gerda. “Placing Women in History: Definitions and Challenges” (Originally published in Feminist Studies, 1975). Reprinted in The Majority Finds its Past: Placing Women in History, 2005 edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005, 122.

6 Comments

  1. You make a very important point! The quote at the beginning can have the unintended effect of diminishing women who were considered “well-behaved” by male historians. Which is to say, women viewed as insignificant by those men or simply invisible to them because of unconscious or inherited biases.

    Liked by 1 person

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