Well-Behaved Women Making History

Public Domain, CC 2.5, 3.5 wiki
Public Domain, CC 2.5, 3.5 wiki

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” It’s a common feminist slogan. The suggestion, however tongue-in-cheek, seems to be that for a woman to make headlines, turn heads, or alter the course of human events, it’s necessary for her to misbehave somehow, presumably as defined against the social norms of traditional patriarchal society.

Like most propaganda, this slogan is hard to argue with. It wins a neat ideological victory for the feminists, in one fell swoop annexing practically every famous woman who has ever lived—candidates from the reasonable (Jezebel, Mary Stuart, Susan B Anthony) to the wildly implausible (Saint Margaret of Scotland, Jane Austen, Corrie ten Boom). It’s also a cautionary tale for young women reminiscent of Gail Carson Levine’s young adult novel Ella Enchanted—Don’t be too obedient. Or, presumably, you’ll never make history.

The origin of the slogan is actually quite illuminating. According to Quote Investigator (quoteinvestigator.com/2012/11/03/well-behaved-women/), the line was first coined by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in a 1976 scholarly paper appearing in the journal “American Quarterly.” Now a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and professor of early American History at Harvard, Ulrich was then a student at the University of New Hampshire. The first sentences of her paper, “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735”, read:

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.

To Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, such women are not memorable and therefore unlikely to make history. But how is she defining history? For Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, history appears to be “whatever the twenty-first-century remembers.” Or, in the words of distinguished historian Professor Arthur Marwick,

The best and most concise definition of history is: The bodies of knowledge about the past produced by historians, together with everything that is involved in the production, communication of, and teaching about that knowledge.

The problem with both these definitions, helpful as they may be in some ways, is that both of them define the discipline of history in terms of humanity. But for Christians, history must be defined in terms of God. For Christians, the ultimate history-defining document is Scripture, which traces history on a cosmic scale from the creation by a transcendent and almighty God to its consummation with the descent of the New Jerusalem. All human history takes place within this context, governed by this God, and tending toward this aim. In human terms, it is the tale of the centuries-long struggle inaugurated in Genesis between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, or in less metaphorical language, the war between Christ and His Church, and Satan and those whom he has deceived.

The theological term for this conflict is “the antithesis.” The pre-eminent Christian philosopher, Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) wrote his great work The City of God Against the Pagans to draw Christian attention to this conflict between what he called “the city of God” and “the city of man”. In a passage that admirably captures the Biblical doctrine of history, Augustine said:

We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried to the point of contempt for self. In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord. The former looks for glory from men, the latter finds its highest glory in God, the witness of a good conscience. The earthly lifts up its head in its own glory, the Heavenly City says to its God: ‘My glory; you lift up my head.’ In the former, the lust for domination lords it over its princes as over the nations it subjugates; in the other both those put in authority and those subject to them serve one another in love, the rulers by their counsel, the subjects by obedience. The one city loves its own strength shown in its powerful leaders; the other says to its God, ‘I will love you, my Lord, my strength.’

In these terms history is not just what the twentieth-century remembers, nor is it what historians discover about the past. Rather, it is the tale of the conflict between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, between Christ and His enemies, between the Heavenly City and the Earthly City. It is grand epic on a cosmic scale, and it is conceived, written, directed, enjoyed, and recorded by one author-director-actor-audience: God.

In these terms, in a world where even the number of hairs on a person’s head or the death of a single sparrow forms a noteworthy element of this story, the ultimate issue is not whether or not men or women should make history, but rather what kind of history they should make. The issue is clear-cut not just in Augustine but also in Scripture: it is the difference between rebellion and obedience, self-esteem and God-esteem, lust for domination and submission to God.

This is the antithesis, and this is the Christian concept of history. In such a framework, behaviour and misbehaviour are defined not in terms of social norms but in terms of God and His will as revealed in Scripture. In such a framework, well-behaved women are those citizens of the City of God who submit to their authorities, refuse to seek their own glory, and lovingly serve those around them.

Feminism cannot approve such well-behaved women. Scripture teaches that the Church must take a distinctively feminine role in obeying her Head, finding her strength and glory in Him rather than in herself. Feminism, however, encourages women to access their inner strength, grow in self-esteem, and seek self-fulfillment and earthly power. Feminism is thus obviously the philosophy of the rebellious Earthly City repackaged specifically for women. Given that it moves in terms of domination, autonomous power, and self-glory, it is no wonder that feminism evaluates the women of history in terms of how much power and influence they wielded over their men.

In the history of the Earthly City, women are primarily remarkable and memorable for their autonomy and self-determination. In the history of the Heavenly City, women are primarily remarkable for their obedience to God. In the Christian study of history, this obedience, not sexual power and politics, should be our standard of evaluation. Perhaps we might find that obedience resulting in quiet and productive lives, like those of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “virtuous women” in New England. Or we might perhaps find it resulting in a life of fame and influence on the stage of history. In either case, the truly important thing to note is not the power, but the obedience.

These obedient, well-behaved women are our mothers in the faith, and as the Lord gives me the opportunity, I intend to write some more posts about the many ways in which they made history.

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