Woody Internship – Taft Museum of Art – Blog 5

This week, I’ve been thinking about the quote “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” You’ve probably heard that phrase before. Often, it’s credited to women such as Marilyn Monroe and Eleanor Roosevelt, pasted on photos of them, and shared on Facebook. It’s on coffee mugs and bumper stickers, Etsy jewelry and t-shirts. It’s everywhere, it’s usually misattributed, and it’s widely misunderstood.

When most people recite the phrase — myself included — it’s a feminist rallying cry. We call for women to cast off social norms, defy conformity, and make history. I know I’ve said “well-behaved women” and “down with patriarchy” in the same breath. However, the original meaning of “well-behaved women” is a bit different. The quote is originally from a 1976 academic article by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich titled “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735.” Here’s the passage in which it appears (emphasis added):

“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.”

Ulrich is making a very particular point: everyday women do not “make history.” The names we remember from history class are the names of women who ruled countries, broke boundaries, and generally caused a ruckus. We don’t remember the names of women who did not have access to platforms and privilege and the power that comes with them. Ulrich’s meaning is different from the pop culture understanding of “well-behaved women,” but these ideas are powerful in tandem.

So why have I been thinking about this quote? Well, it’s simple: I’ve spent this week trying to research a woman in late nineteenth century America, and it’s frustrating. My research subject is Anna Sinton Taft, one of the founders of the Taft Museum of Art. Anna was an art collector, a philanthropist, a business owner, a multimillionaire, and a socialite. So why is researching her life like searching for needles in a haystack?

This is, obviously, a rhetorical question. There’s a number of reasons, from social expectations of women to laws restricting women’s economic participation to the fact that a search for (“Anna Taft” AND “Cincinnati”) produces eight hits but (“Mrs. Charles P. Taft” AND “Cincinnati”) produces ninety. 

There’s also the fact that, generally, Anna Taft was a “well-behaved woman.” To be clear: she was extraordinarily wealthy and married into a political dynasty, so she wasn’t exactly invisible. However, she was, for the most part, well-behaved. Unlike my other research subjects Nicholas Longworth (who once encouraged a riot in a courtroom) and David Sinton (who got sued all the time), the worst I could find about Anna Taft was that it took her eight years to pay her inheritance tax. Otherwise, she appeared in newspapers for fairly orthodox activities of the obscenely rich: entertaining guests, donating to charity, attending social events, and collecting art. Interestingly, despite Anna’s vast business and financial holdings (among them: a prestigious Cincinnati hotel, 100,000 acres of farmland in Texas, the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies baseball fields, and countless investments in heavy industry), she is never described as a business owner or a businesswoman. Instead, she is usually “Mrs. Charles P. Taft,” and that’s it.

That brings me back to my point. If Anna Taft, one of the wealthiest women in America in her lifetime, barely made history, what chance does the everyday woman have? If a woman was not born into the right family or did not fight to make her name known, how can we rediscover her story? This is a question pondered by social historians for decades, but it’s the big question I’ve been asking myself this week. I don’t know the answer — and perhaps I never will — but I will do my best to remember both the rebels and the “well-behaved women” as I continue my work as a historian.

I want to give a shoutout to the podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class (and its hosts Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey), for making me realize everything I know about the “well-behaved women” quote is wrong. Tracy and Holly explain it in the recent episode “Fearless, Feisty and Unflagging: The Women of Gettysburg,” which is a worth a listen for the quote explainer and the women-oriented social history.