Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

1,488 ratings - 3.79* vote

They didn't ask to be remembered, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Ulrich wrote in 1976 about the pious women of colonial New England. And then she added a phrase that has since gained widespread currency: Well-behaved women seldom make history.Today those words appear almost everywhere on T-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, plaques, greeting cards, and more. But what do They didn't ask to be remembered, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Ulrich wrote in 1976 about the pious women of

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Book details

Hardcover, 320 pages
September 4th 2007 by Knopf

(first published 2007)

Original Title
Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History
1400041597 (ISBN13: 9781400041596)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


Can be read as a summary of some of the 'high points' of a Women's History course at a good university. Fascinating, emphatic, impassioned, and yet not whiny or exaggerated. Ends with a quiet plea to continue the work of civil rights activists, not just for women but also for people of color and those who are LGBTQ+. Index, notes, no bibliography.


This book is like a teaser or a movie preview - it just cracks opens the door to give you a peek at what's out there so you know that there's a lot more where that comes from. Using her own famous slogan as a launching pad, Ms. Ulrich covers an amazingly broad spectrum of time, class, and geography to give us a taste of the breadth and depth of women's history. For example, she discusses the legends of Amazon warriors, women's suffrage, Mrs. O'Leary's cow, the stories of Judith and Susanna in the Apocrypha, female Renaissance artists, home decoration in Botswana, Native American basket weaving, and second-wave feminism in the 1960s.

The book hangs on an outline provided by books written by three remarkable women: Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (c. 1400), Eighty Years and More by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (c. 1825), and A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf (1928). Ms. Ulrich frequently refers back to these three women and their landmark books throughout her work.

I particularly liked the chapters on women and slavery and on second-wave feminism. In the first, Ms. Ulrich highlighted four "Harriets": Harriet Powell and Harriet Jacobs (both runaway slaves), Harriet Tubman, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Through these women she tells the story of slavery, drawing parallels with the rights denied women of the time as well. As for the second, I am ashamed to admit how much I didn't know about the last forty years of the women's movement. I've been the beneficiary of so many of its hard-won results, completely ignorant of those who made those benefits possible.

Each of the chapters really could have been expanded into a book of its own; in fact, the major quibble I have with the book is that it wasn't long enough, while the individual chapters felt too long - too much information with not enough breaks to absorb the information. But I still came away wanting more. Ms. Ulrich gathers together compelling stories of fascinating women, but there's so much more to learn. This book is probably best used as a starting point for continuing research into women's history.

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I know that women's studies scholars have reviewed this book and found it simplistic and repetitive. I, however, am not a women's studies scholar. I am a woman who wants to understand how my culture, stretching back for centuries, has formed the experience of women. I was not at all disappointed. I found this book interesting, entertaining, and educational. I did emerge from it rather grumpy and sharp toward my husband and three boys, but now that my husband is eager to read it as well, I think some valuable discussions will emerge!


I loved this book. It was like sitting next to a pool with your feet in the water: not a true deep dive, and you are aware that there could be more fun in the water even if it is more work, but it's a perfectly pleasant activity all on its own. A splash of 1960s activism history here. A sploosh of witch trials there. A sprinkle of great women writers. I'm one to be satisfied with an afternoon of sitting by the side of a pool. It's cooling, you're still participating--- ((this metaphor will break down any moment considering the fact that I can't actually swim so I'll just stop here.))
What I mean is, that for such a small book on such a gigantic subject, it is remarkably cohesive. I'm the kind of writer who has to put any major project through at minimum two full, down-to-the-bones restructurings, so just the sheer organization of this book was astounding me. Built on the spine of this wonderful and chameleonic sentence that can mean so many different things, Ulrich pulls all the question threads out and lays it all on the works and perspectives of Christine de Pizan, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Virginia Woolf. As a reader, we knew where we were based on the signposts of City of Ladies, Room of One's Own, and Eighty Years and More. We stood there while we were thrown example after example of short sketches weaving in and out of each other. Stories that answer some questions and ask even more.
What does 'good behavior' look like? How do the ways it's different for men and women affect things? How do individual women reject being well-behaved? What foundation are they working from? What is history? What does it mean to 'make' history? Shape it? Mold it? Achieve the honor of being mentioned three generations down the road? Affect world events? Is making history the job of the women of the past or the scholars who study them? Is 'making history' really the goal? If well-behaved women don't make history, is it fair to blame that on them? Or should we expand history to respect and allow their stories to matter? Can we ever find our voices now, without a concerted effort to end the silences of the past? Is big, radical, political, effective, intentional change the only history that matters? How do the myths and the incorrect assumptions and rumors tell interesting stories alongside the truth of the matters? If a woman is well-behaved but is rumored to be ill-behaved, what then?
It was fantastic. On its ride through women's history we hit so many of my old favorites: Artemisia Gentileschi, how no one actually burned any bras at that first protest in Atlantic City bc they didn't have a permit, Harriet Tubman, the second wave of feminism rediscovering the works of their foremothers. And so many of my new favorites now: the women who stopped paying property tax and the town tried to take their cows, history of Amazon and women warrior tales, the advent of women's studies as a field, ECS's origin story. And also, constantly, more that I wanted and then didn't show up: my beloved medieval woman mystics and their visions, women touted as celebrity sex symbols who didn't put up with sh!t, progressives in the age of union organizations like Nellie Bly, women in my own religious tradition. Instead of being sad they were 'left out,' I found it electrifying. There's so much to learn about out there! Women have such a fascinating and rich history and this book was only able to scrape the surface.
For such a short book, it packs a ton of information. (I also, much to my shame, only /really/ realized how much I speed/skimread my easy-peasy fiction when suddenly the info-per-sentence was, like, three times what I'm used to. secrets revealed.) And, again, in awe of the organization. I also adore the visual rhetoric of the cover, but that's beside the point and this review is long enough already. Anyway, read this book! It's fun and it's serious, it's big questions and amusing anecdotes, it's a great Women's History Month survey. It's written for a general audience, but I think serves as a really good gateway to more scholarly reading about a lot of the subjects that are brought up. It's also not hopelessly depressing, which is worthy of noting because it could easily have been a big bummer, but instead was fun not only because of the treatment of the more recent/familiar movements and figures, but of the feminist fire spirit that filled women on occasion for centuries back in time. It's history about history! What could be better?


Oh I really liked this. I judge the awesomeness of a book by how often I stop and read passages outloud to McKay. This gets 5 starts solely because I think I could have read every word outloud to him, except he's trying to read the Chronicles of Narnia right now and didn't have time to listen to me read this whole book to him.

It reads in the same way my brain thinks. Lots of details and it goes everywhere. You start talking about Woolf and end up with the Great Chicago Fire. Now that's the kind of train of thought I can get behind! Of course because it goes everywhere, it's not going to give everything the most depth, but it didn't neglect the details.

It's just fascinating. And amazing to think that before the 60s and 70s when historians started looking at women, none of the stories in this book would have been accessible to us.

"Some people are happy to give feminists credit for things they fear- like abortion rights, contraception for teenagers, or gay liberation- but less willing to acknowledge that feminist activism brought about things they support, like better treatment for breast cancer or the opportunity for young girls to play soccer as well as lead cheers."

Lots of food for thought. My brain is going to chew on this for a while longer.


Interesting look at women in history. I like the use of literature in terms of De Pizan and Woolf.


Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History covers far too much ground in few too pages. The text attempts to relates to the thesis--that well-behaved women seldom make history--but it often comes across as seeming annecdotal and trite at times. The reader learns a little about the Amazons, a little about second-wave feminists, and a little about Wonder Woman, among others. It's all fascinating, but it prevents a level of depth that most readers yearn for. I did like, however, how the author framed "minor" characters in history through the research of Christine de Pizan, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Virginia Woolf--women completely and thoroughly known by all feminist historians and most of the public. The author does create fascinating analyses of feminist art, but again, this seems disconnected to the greater theme.

The most interesting and thorough parts of this book are the foreward and the afterword in which the author explores historiography, or, how history is made and transmitted. I think if the author tied the theory and the praxis together a bit more, that this would have been a better read.

Diana C. Nearhos

I really liked the concept of this book, especially being from the woman who coined the phrase unintentionally (Her introduction on the phrase's popularity is great).
The book felt a little constrained, however, by her viewing the idea through Chistine de Pizan's City of Ladies, Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Eighty Years and More, and Virginia Woolfe's A Room of One's Own. I would have liked to come at it from a broader stance.
This is an interesting read, but I'm not sure I would recommend it to those who aren't used to, or don't really like, nonfiction. It's not a hard read, but it's not a smooth narrative either.


I wanted to like this book - really. As a child, I would go to the biography section in the public library and just pull books at random off the shelves to take home and read. The librarians didn't know what to do with a child who came up with 11 books and wanting to check them all out. I chewed through those books every week.

I don't know what it is about this book, but the lives of the women she talks about were ... well boring. How do you make history boring? I couldn't finish it and it went back to the library very quickly.

Just A. Bean

The book could probably use a little more structure than the three feminists idea, but it was just so enjoyable to read that I hardly minded. As an exploration of how feminism, women and history have interacted, it mostly worked. I very much liked the turn of women's actions being recorded in history, to women's actions recording history. Though it didn't deal with any one subject, with any depth, it used them all to build the case for all women's lives needing to make it into history as more than either heroes or victims.