How Should Christians Respond to 'Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History'
- Heather Riggleman Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2021 4 Jan
“Well behaved women rarely make history.”
My English teacher called out to me and requested I stay after class. After everyone had shuffled out, she crushed me with her words. “It’s better for you to drop out now before you start showing and giving the girls in this school the idea that having a baby in high school is okay. No matter what you do, you will not pass my class.” With tears in my eyes and flushed cheeks, I gripped my books even tighter in front of my stomach and left her room wearing a scarlet letter. I went home that day carrying the echo of her words and others as I started to show. Most adults told me I would never graduate. I wouldn’t get to go to college. I should have an abortion. I had made my bed and it was time to lie in it.
In defiance, I continued to go to class. Each week, she would hand back my papers with a failing grade. Fully awake and angry, I wondered why I couldn’t graduate high school and create a future for my baby girl and myself. I applied for colleges and even had a plan for housing and daycare. And then another teacher noticed. Outraged by my failing grade, she took matters into her own hands and called a meeting with the Principal. She had submitted one of my essays to a national contest where mine won first place out of thousands. Thanks to her tenacity and my own defiance, I graduated high school. A few years later, I graduated from college after working full time, going to school full time, becoming a mom and a wife. In the midst of these challenges, my sweet little is the one who actually led me and my husband to the Kingdom of Christ.
Whenever challenges come my way as a woman, I remember how far God carried me and the phrase Laurel Thatcher Ulrich coined, “Well behaved women rarely make history.”
Not because I’m a feminist but because I believe God called me to raise up daughters willing to challenge the culture of stereotypes while making way for his Kingdom.
What Is the Origin of the Phrase 'Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History'?
When Laurel Ulrich coined this phrase, I doubt she imagined it would be on T-shirts, coffee cups, and bumper stickers. I doubt she realized women in her generation and thereafter would make it their mantra to break the norms of society. The history of the phrase began in 1976 when she published an article titled “Virtuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668–1735.”
She opened her article with this:
“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.”
She wasn’t standing up for women’s rights or creating a wave of feminists. She was making a simple point as a historian of women: The beautiful virtues of godly women in early America are easily forgotten because they leave few newsworthy remnants for the historian. Her observations caught on like wildfire to describe courageous women who sought, without the hope of praise or admiration, to stand up against injustice and promote social justice.
What Does the Bible Have to Say about 'Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History'?
Now, this is where this phrase might challenge you. God’s Word is filled with examples of women who fiercely stepped outside the lines of the culture. Let’s start with the fact, we are called to be Christians. He isn’t looking for people who know how to walk and talk like one. The word Christian means “anointed or Christlike.” What did Jesus do? He defied the Pharisees and went around releasing the oppressed. Luke 4:18-19 says,
God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, To set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”
Lisa Bevere, the author of Lioness Arising wrote, “If the Spirit of God was placed on Jesus to do all these things, and if we are born of the same Spirit, then we are to do as he did—preach the good news to the poor, set the burdened and battered free, and announce, “This is God’s year to act!’”
In other words, Laurel's quote isn’t an invitation to be ill-disciplined and naughty but to realize being Christlike sometimes goes against the status quo. Nineteenth-century British poet, Matthew Arnold wrote, “If ever there comes a time when the women of the world come together purely and simply for the benefit of mankind, it will be a force such as the world has never known.”
What about some of the women who have shaped our world:
Jane Austen: 1775 - 1817
Florence Nightingale: 1820 - 1910
Emmeline Pankhurst: 1858-1928
Rosa Parks: 1913-2005
I doubt any of them thought they were misbehaving at the time. But these aren’t the only women who’ve made history. There are women who are penned into stories of the Bible who made history. What about Deborah, Jael, Tamar, Esther, Bathsheba, Abigail, Rahab, Hannah, Eunice and Lois, and even Mary?
Deborah rallied her people to go to war and rode into battle with the men and when the men hesitated to carry out God’s command, she carried it out.
What about Jael? She used a tent peg to kill the enemy. Could she have just turned him over to the authorities? Sure, but she didn’t. Yet, God was okay with it, and later a song was created in her honor.
What about Tamar? She was twice widowed, and she attempted to honor the customs of culture to continue the lineage of her husbands, her father-in-law refused. She took matters into her own hands and pretended to be a prostitute in order to sleep with her father-in-law so that she might conceive a child. Did God tell her to do this? No. However, her son is recorded in the lineage of Christ and she was declared righteous.
Then there’s Esther. Esther disobeyed the command to come to the king only when called. Disobedience had gotten Vashti, Xerxes’ first wife, sacked. Esther was afraid but her choice to behave badly at court saved her people.
Bathsheba was an adulteress and the mother of Solomon the wise and also found in the lineage of Christ.
Rahab was a prostitute who hid enemy spies and lied to her king. Her actions redeemed her family from the destruction of Jericho and once again, her son is in the lineage of David and Jesus. Abigail circumvented her husband. Her choice saved her household and won her the heart of King David and became his wife.
Hannah was chastised for being a drunk woman. Yet, her fervent prayers and faith were seen by God. He then made her a mother to Samuel.
Lois and Eunice were a mother/daughter team that raised up a man of God, Timothy, who was the Apostle Paul's most trusted companion and disciple.
Mary carried an “illegitimate” child and gave birth to the Son of God. What if she told God she was concerned about how it would look?
What about God and how he created the first woman? He took a rib from Adam—not because she was less than and beneath him, but she was to be his helper by his side in life. Woman means Ezer Kenegdo. Translated to English it, means we are warriors, complementary to man. In this context, we are reminded where our strength comes from and what is valuable in God’s eyes.
Proverbs 31:25 “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.”
Proverbs 31:10-11 “An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.”
Ephesians 5:33 “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”
How Should We Respond to the Phrase 'Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History'?
Does this phrase give us permission to act naughty, have abortions, and defy our husbands and elders? No. We should respond to this phrase as a daughter of the One true King. This phrase needs to be approached as the Christ-Like anointed women God has called us to be. In an article authored by Joseph Pearce, he writes how best to approach this phrase with both men and women making history, “We need a society that knows that the hand that rocks the cradle is the very rock on which society stands secure. In other words, we need a society that knows that patriarchy can only exist if it nestles in the bosom of matriarchy.”
But perhaps the best approach Numbers 23:24, where God is calling us to rise up like a lioness. Based on this scripture, we are encouraged to rise and be fully awake like a lioness because a lioness is the image of a woman who lives in the will of the Lord and is fully aware of how he has created her. She is the image of strength, loyalty, grace, kindness, service, and gentleness. Through this Christ-colored lens, we can ask ourselves, how will we make history defending God’s Word, our families, our communities, and our world?
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/monkeybusinessimages
Heather Riggleman is an award-winning journalist and a regular contributor for Crosswalk. She calls Nebraska home with her three kids and a husband of 22 years. She believes Jazzercise, Jesus, and tacos can fix anything and not necessarily in that order! She is author of I Call Him By Name Bible Study, the Bold Truths Prayer Journal, Mama Needs a Time Out, and a contributor to several books. You can find her at www.heatherriggleman.com or on Facebook.