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Well-behaved people don't make history

I saw a cute little feminist bumper sticker today. Naturally, the other side of the bumper had one of those illegible "Coexist" stickers. The readily readable one said, "Well-behaved women don't make history."

Well, y'know, in one sense that's true. Because well-behaved people don't make history. Fielding's novel Jonathan Wild is based on this very premise. Fielding satirizes the notion of a "great man" that includes tyrants and robbers, so long as they were successful on a grand scale.

Now, I don't want to be too cynical. There have been plenty of history-making people who have deserved their fame.

But for the most part, it's not so far off to say that if you get on with your life and don't do anything spectacularly bad, you probably won't do anything spectacularly good enough to "make history" in the sense of being famous. Which is, of course, just fine. An ambition to "make history" in the sense intended by the bumper sticker is unhealthy.

But it's an unhealthy ambition we teach to all our children. Girls, perhaps, especially, in these feminist days. "You can be anything you want to be." "I want to be President some day." And so forth. It's interesting to see how people react who try standard conversation-starters with realistic children, especially girls:

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"I'd like to be a mom."


[Conversation languishes.]

But I suppose the same could happen with traditionalist boys who've been given realistic expectations.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"Well, I don't know. The economy isn't looking too good. I'm thinking about majoring in mathematics in college, but that's no guarantee of a job. I guess I'll have to wait and see what happens, what God brings along."

[Conversation languishes.]

It's not good to teach our children that they should plan to "make history." Let's teach them instead to be good, honest, diligent, and godly. And in that way, they will "make history" as it's actually lived by real people--getting married, raising families, loving and providing for spouses and children. That's the kind of history worth making.

Comments (23)

Indeed. The "I want to make history!" mentality is what happens when our little darlings are idoctrinated by liberal media and spin. We should really tell these kids to humble themselves and get back in line. They are ruining our country.

I want to be a good husband and father.

I've never seen that on a bumper sticker.

Whenever I see that bumper sticker (and I see it a lot around Portland), I think: Who the heck said that? I.e., the speaker herself didn't 'make history', at least enough for anyone to know her name. By her own account, she must have been... 'well behaved'.


I suppose technically, Kathleen, one could interpret the sticker as meaning, "No well-behaved women make history." That means that every woman who makes history was not well-behaved. It would be compatible with that to say that some non-well-behaved women also fail to make history, though. So maybe the sage who gave us this saying wasn't well-behaved but somehow just got overlooked. :-) No doubt by the machinations of the oppressive patriarchy.

"An ambition to "make history" in the sense intended by the bumper sticker is unhealthy."

Perhaps, or not but among the most annoying people in the universe are those women who preface whatever is to follow (which is some flavor of wing nut folk nonsense 99% of the time) with "I'm just a mom, but,,."

When is the last time some guy said, "I'm just am dad, but ..."?

Just another bumper sticker that combines bad historical knowledge with failed humor (like the one that says WHEN RELIGION RULED THE WORLD THEY CALLED IT "THE DARK AGES"). Plenty of well-behaved women made history. In fact, the most famous woman of history was also the most well-behaved woman of all time ... and all ages shall call her "blessed".

Jesus was extremely well behaved and he made history as did the Immaculat.

When I see that bumper sticker, I always think, "Ill-behaved women don't make history either." After all, so few people actually "make history", compared to the number of people who are alive, that to a really good first approximation *nobody* makes history.

Add in the fact that many of those who *do* "make history" weren't trying to (e.g., Lenny Skutnik, Todd Beamer), and a fair number of those who *are* trying to "make history" succeed only in making themselves pitiable (e.g., almost everybody who's ever appeared on reality TV), and it's hard to escape the conclusion that planning to "make history" is pretty well self-defeating.


Actually, of all the famous women I can think of off the top of my head (Lucretia, Cleopatra, Dido, Mary, Clotilda, Matilda of Tuscany, Jean of Arc, Catherine of Siena, Heloise, Elizabeth I, Maria Theresa, Jane Austen,...), none of them was particularly known for being gratuitously rude or socially disfunctional. I don't believe boorishness or inability to master social etiquette has ever helped anyone become famous. I don't think this plan of belching, swearing, and nose-picking one's way to fame is going to work for too many little girls.

But it will make a whole lot of little girls into miserable and permanently resentful (physically) grown women.

My mom always took those things as a teaching opportunity. ^.^ Her response would probably be to point out that it's only partly true (as Anthony points out) and that MOST of "history" (in the sense of "big stories") is about horrible things happening. A large measure of the rest is bravery, which can be "well behaved" or not. "Making history" is not needfully a GOOD thing!

I have actually heard guys say "I'm just a dad-" but it's generally in relation to parenting stuff.

TV Tropes has a page on this. It's called "outside jokes"-- they only make sense if you LACK some knowledge.

According to super-cynical Gibbon: "History is little more than the register of crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind". Yet unless history is merely a chronicle of famous (and infamous) men and women doing things 'worth recording', then we are all 'making history' whether we realize it or not. Total obscurity has been the lot of nearly everyone since time immemorial.

There's a celebrated meditation on the vanity of earthly glory and the doom of arbitrary fate in Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.


A thought-provoking post, given that just last night I was listening to one of my favorite Catholic priests on the radio and he was talking about martyrs -- it was a beautiful "rant" (his word, not mine) about how as Christians we should in some sense want to be martyrs for our faith. He even made the case that the phrase "hallowed be thy name" from the Lord's Prayer is in a sense a prayer for martyrdom because in ancient times "hallowed" really meant "sanctified" and when Jews used to pray for God's name to be sanctified, they were really praying that they would be willing to die for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

So in that sense, I think should praise and give thanks to well-behaved Christian martyrs who make history, including Saint Justin!

Funny, I took the meaning of that bumper sticker as the complete opposite - I thought it was admonishing women who behave badly to clean up their act or else they will be recalled by history in a rather unflattering light.

I guess that is what the young kids nowadays call "message fail."

I don't want to be too cynical.

I'm going to be cynical and say this phrase is the clue that a too cynical statement is likely to follow. :) In many ways you don't seem to be speaking generally though.

Still, I don't think it is true at all that those behaving well don't make history. But here's my cynicism, which I think is justified. Few know or care about American history (I'll assume most of us are Americans) and so very few of even who we call "educated" now can be expected to know more than generalities about it. I could list a fantastic example of this (and how behaving well was a requirement to sucess and fame) but I won't because of the cynics who would likely sneer based on false knowledge and ignorance. But if no one knows, what difference does it make? A good Conservative journalist and writer whose name I can't recall said once "studying American history dispells cynicism", and I think he's right. I was cynical until I started doing that. Second hand knowledge and leaving it to our history teachers isn't good enough. But few will make their own judgements now from knowledge of particulars.

and so their judgment on the matter

When I see that sticker, I think of a female Richard Rich from A Man for All Seasons, who is disappointed that Thomas More will only offer him a job as a school teacher:

More: A man should go
where he won't be tempted.
Why not be a teacher? You'd be
a fine teacher. Perhaps a great one.

Rich: lf I was, who would know it?

More: You! Your pupils. Your friends. God. Not a bad public, that.

Excellent, Scott. The very point.

Should I even bother to reply to this obviously wrong and idiotic bumper sticker? Women, literally, "make" history when they have children. Even well-behaved women have children :)

That being said, I can name many well-behaved women who made history, so, proof by counter-example. Now, if she means, by "well-behaved," women of the sort who inhabit the Delta class in 1984, the sort of people who know-their-place and put-the-cog-in-slot-A types, then this is a veiled attempt at cultural homogeneity. Very bad for history, that.

The Chicken

It's worth noting that the original statement ("Well-behaved women seldom make history") was made in an essay by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich with an almost opposite meaning - that historians should rectify past neglect and direct their attention toward the lives of ordinary people and not merely to those of the great or infamous. Alex's comment comes close to the original meaning. Unfortunately, the bumper sticker has givn the quotation a life of its own, and even Ulrich herself has embraced the new and very different meaning.

that historians should rectify past neglect and direct their attention toward the lives of ordinary people and not merely to those of the great or infamous

That was a whole movement in historiography, if I'm not mistaken, even before feminist history got really going--earlier in the 20th century. "Social history." My impression is that feminist historians piggy-backed on it a bit. Unfortunately, a lot of that stuff is about as boring as watching paint dry. I remember being forced in grad school to read a book (in a class on the novelists Fielding and Richardson, of all things) about social history of the 18th century. I can scarcely remember any of it, it was so dull. The only bit I remember was something about the invention of brass bedsteads and the consequent reduction in bedbugs. A real page-turner.


In a wonderful Joseph Epstein book review about writing good prose, of all things, I come across this quote which made me think back on this post:

It is unlikely that many of us will be famous, or even remembered. But not less important than the brilliant few that lead a nation or a literature to fresh achievements, are the unknown many whose patient efforts keep the world from running backward; who guard and maintain the ancient values, even if they do not conquer new; whose inconspicuous triumph it is to pass on what they inherited from their fathers, unimpaired and undiminished, to their sons. Enough, for almost all of us, if we can hand on the torch, and not let it down; content to win the affection, if it may be, of a few who know us and to be forgotten when they in their turn have vanished. The destiny of mankind is not governed wholly by its “stars.”

Great quotation, Jeff. Thanks! That is why such people should be lauded in personal recollections and also in fiction.

Speaking of which, something I know will interest you: I just finished Robinson's _Home_ (sort of a sequel to _Gilead_, though not really), and I recommend it. _Gilead_ is the greater novel, but _Home_ is well worth reading, though one needs to read _Gilead_ first.

As a woman, I have noticed that those of my gender who love to repeat this quote are, without exception,
ill-behaved, witches who are difficult to get along with. Somehow this quote justifies their bad behavior, even though they will NEVER make history. Even if they had a chance at making history, their miserable people skills would sabotage any success. (She is the type of woman who takes pride in the fact that "ALL" of her Mothers-In-Law could not stand her. Why does that make a woman a noble person?)
I guess the quote makes her feel a little bit better when her "well-behaved" office-mate gets promoted and she does not. After all, she can take pride in the fact that SHE is the kind of woman who "makes history" (although she won't). I am not bitter, I am just tired of hearing and seeing this undocumented generalization. I would rather be a kind, helpful, productive co-worker, family member and friend than one who "makes history", if that actually is really how it works (which it is not).

....and that's why that quote and that bumper sticker rankles me!

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