Unearthing The History Made By Well-Behaved Women

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle in the film Belle (2013)

You have likely come across Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s well-known quote, “well-behaved women seldom make history,” on ironic cross-stitch samplers, tote bags, and fridge magnets. Removed of its original context, it has become a rallying cry for women to make history by misbehaving, suggesting that the only way to stand out is to misbehave. In context of Ulrich’s original writing, though, the quote is less a rallying cry and more a depressing truism: women born outside of royal families, who followed the rules, who stayed out of trouble, tended not to have their actions recorded. The women we best know from history did so because they stood out from the crowd: as royals, saints, murderers, murder victims, performers, artists, and more. This doesn’t mean the “well-behaved” women weren’t as interesting or worthy, only that we have few documents left to let us know who they were. The following nonfiction works use letters, diaries and other primary sources to help excavate the lives of women who — like Eliza Schuyler in Hamilton — found themselves removed from the narrative.

Click to read my list of books at Book Riot.


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