Muller Marginalia

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

Published: Mar 22, 2023  |  

Writer, editor, performer and self-producer

Illustration By Nikki Muller

I’m immensely proud of the stories we’ve been able to share so far. Lien Tran taught us about ground-breaking work in tech, where VR is being used to train law enforcement on the “soft skills” needed to better help victims of gender-based violence. Sarah Edgecumbe shared narratives and experiences from women in Palestine, who are overwhelmingly underrepresented in mainstream media coverage of the conflict in the region. And Danielle Solzman discussed the very real struggle of having a happy, successful life as a trans woman in America—something that, as she also covered, is only worsening with new legislation.

As with Black History Month, Women’s History Month is an opportunity to highlight the work and stories of those that have been unrecognized or under celebrated in mainstream history. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need special months to ensure Black History and Women’s History were being recognized. But we still live in an imperfect world, so these months encourage a focused effort to gain a richer, more nuanced understanding of those who’ve shaped our society. 

This article’s title, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” is attributed to historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. While many—including myself—have interpreted the quote as a mandate to live in a bold, unapologetic manner, Ulrich wasn’t making a statement on female behavior, but on the way history is written. It’s easy to tell the story of the loudest person in the room: that’s the only thing you can hear. Telling the histories of those quietly working in the background requires much more patience and attention. 

Our contributor Nick Slater explored this idea through a moving tribute to his mother, a woman whose medical invention could quietly improve life for thousands of people. It’s not glamorous, and she’s not starring in a TED talk, but that doesn’t make her achievements any less significant. And that’s Ulrich’s point. There are plenty of women we should be celebrating who aren’t following the big, brash model of “non-well-behaved women.” 

Sure, “badly behaving” women make history, and that’s fabulous. We love a good rebel, a woman who stands up for what she believes in, who causes a stir, who speaks up in spite of being expected to be quiet. We needed “disobedient” suffragettes and freedom fighters to push progress throughout history. 

Personally, there are fewer things I love more than a bold woman, being wildly badass, whether historical or fictional.  Sojourner Truth making her stunning “Ain’t I A Woman” speech is one of my all time favorite moments of American political rhetoric—suck it, Abraham Lincoln. And for those who follow this column, you might recall my love for the O.G. icon of womanly fierceness, Brünnhilde. Both of these women fill my heart with a smoldering sense of pride, power, and eternal badassery—especially Sojourner, who in my opinion is even cooler than a world-ending supernatural Norse lady. To speak up against what you know at your core is wrong when the whole world is telling you to be silent—not only as a woman, but as a Black American born into slavery—there are literally no words that can capture how incredible she was.

But as much as I love love love these cool-ass women of history, I do agree: well-behaved women should also make history. The women doing unheralded work that makes the world go round. And sure, the guys too… and nonbinary folx while we are at it. 

Women’s History Month is about correcting the historical erasure of women from the history books, since most of us were denied the right to read or write them, for one, and we tended to do the invisible “women’s work” of the home. But to do so truly requires us also rethinking what “counts” as history. And that means not only celebrating the few women who actually broke through the glass ceiling, have led movements and countries and armies, but also the women who didn’t—the women who set aside their ambitions to nurse their loved ones, who raised families alone and nurtured communities and people in need.  

So think about these women—whether it’s those who have shaped your own life, or those who have quietly made their mark without leaving a trace—and give them a moment of appreciation. History doesn’t have to be “written by the victors:” it’s written by each of us, by who we remember, who is written across our hearts. And contrary to a lot of the big (male) personalities you see in politics, you don’t have to be an asshole to change the world. 

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