Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History

Uncaptured by the paparazzi, ignored by journalists, here and gone without the world even noticing, well-behaved women leave behind almost nothing for the historians to work with. But these challenges did not stop Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich from making honorable attempts to find well-behaved women, and to celebrate their lives.

The historian, who has an eye for the ordinary, and who won a Pulitzer for bringing to life the diary of one midwife who lived in the decades following the American Revolution, also set out to systematically collect the celebrated virtues of early American women. This time her research led her to old funeral sermon manuscripts, the one place where the otherwise overlooked lives of these women were celebrated and recorded.

The Hidden Ones

She published her findings in 1976, in an article titled “Virtuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668–1735.”

She opened her study with this rather straightforward summary paragraph:

Cotton Mather called them “the hidden ones.” They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question God or the magistrates. They prayed secretly, read the Bible through at least once a year, and went to hear the minister preach even when it snowed. Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history; against Antinomians and witches, these pious matrons have had little chance at all.

Here I must skip over the fact that “well-behaved” Christian women of piety can pursue education and humbly correct wayward church leaders. There’s no contradiction. But that’s not what made this paragraph famous.

“Well-behaved women seldom make history” — the phrase, changed slightly over time and made into a complete sentence of its own (“well-behaved women rarely make history”) — would within twenty years become a popular feminist slogan. It first appeared on a T-shirt in 1996. Then buttons. Then bumper stickers. Then it became the motto of women’s organizations. It took on a life of its own — one sentence pulled from an academic article given autonomous life.

Later, Ulrich would humorously admit, “Nobody has proposed printing T-shirts with any of the other one-liners in my article on funeral sermons. It is hard to imagine the women of Amtrak voluntarily wearing buttons that read, ‘The real drama is in the humdrum’” (The Slogan).

And that’s what makes the extracted line from her 1976 article so comical. Ulrich’s intent was not to call for women to stand up, push back against the status quo, and instigate a ruckus for the record books, as the feminists intuitively implied. No. She was making a simple point of a careful historian: The beautiful virtues of godly women in early America are easily forgotten because they leave few newsworthy remnants for the historian.

Capturing God’s Eyes

So, which characters on earth grab God’s attention? Who will find their biographies recorded in the archive of heaven, celebrated in the ledger of human history in the encyclopedias of eternity?

Unlike the handicapped historian who must work with limited source material on subtle virtues, God’s seven eyes rove the earth with omniscient gaze, looking for the virtuous.

Specifically, in 1 Peter 3, we find the subtle and gentle virtues of the Christian life celebrated in women (and in men). The net result is not to make Christians appear as pushovers, but to showcase how the subtle virtues of gentleness lead to ironclad confidence in Christ in the face of all uncertainty and danger (1 Peter 3:1–6).

Those who hope in God will sometimes make a scene worthy of historians, but usually, their daily lives are marked by the subtle virtues celebrated in the Old and New Testaments when the apostle in 1 Peter 3:10–12 cites Psalm 34:12–16:

     “Whoever desires to love life 
         and see good days, 
     let him keep his tongue from evil 
         and his lips from speaking deceit; 
     let him turn away from evil and do good; 
         let him seek peace and pursue it. 
     For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, 
         and his ears are open to their prayer. 
     But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

What in this testimony of grace would capture the gaze of a historian? Especially when Peter follows this citation by encouraging the faithful to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

The gentleness of the Christian life is a testimony to the reinforcing power and steadying grace we have in our union to Christ.

An Eternal Story

In C.S. Lewis’s devilish fantasy The Screwtape Letters, the targeted Christian man at the center of the devilish attack meets a woman who could potentially become his wife. A virtuous woman, we would say. To the world’s eyes, she looks weak. To demonic eyes, she is a repulsive enemy, a threat to hell, for she is “not only a Christian but such a Christian — a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouse-like, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss. The little brute. She makes me vomit. . . . A two-faced little cheat who looks as if she’d faint at the sight of blood and then dies with a smile.”

These two-faced cheats, women of purity and faith — strong women of dignity, who stare down demons, laugh at an unseen future, and smile in the face of death — churn the devil’s stomach (1 Peter 3:5–6Proverbs 31:25).

God-centered piety demonstrated on earth will not often make it into the record of our historians. There’s too little raw data to make it possible. Well-behaved women rarely make history. Fair enough. But our historians will not have the final word. I suspect the story of every faithful believer, even the most ordinary in this life, has generated voluminous records for eternity, and will find its story recorded in the epic of this age, a library filled with a million volumes of an unabridged record of every act and attitude which riveted the attention of our Creator — and stabbed the demons with dread.

Source: Tony Reinke | Desiring God