Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, professor of history at Harvard University, has written a new book entitled Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. In his review of the book in the Washington Post, Michael Dirida referred to her first major work, Virtuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735, which he says, begins as follows: "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 or 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 crows, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven't been. Well-behaved women seldom make history." Thus, as Dirida points out, was born a key slogan of the feminist movement. Her book, he opines, is a "well-written short work of synthesis and consolidation" of pioneering feminists and the modern-day feminist movement.
It may very well be the case that well-behaved women seldom make history. They are busy making something else: people. I have been mulling over women's silent contribution to history for a long time. But recently I came across a paragraph in an enjoyable novel by the British author Elizabeth Goudge, whom I heard of through reading Isabella of the 21st Century's blog (now sadly deleted). The book, The Herb of Grace, was written in 1948 and, most interestingly, has many reflections by the characters on the war and how it changed their lives and how it changed England. In the short passage that I am going to quote here, I have found the best summation of why well-behaved women do make history in a profound way, although feminists may not read about it or dismiss it. The passage concerns the thoughts of Lucilla, the matriarch of a large family, during a gathering of her grandchildren, sons, daughter, and daughter-in-law, Nadine:
But they were talking about the deplorable state of the world, about that terrible bomb, about famine and inflation and chaos and death, and her mind shied away from their talk like a terrified horse. She couldn't do anything about it now, at 86, except pray, and in between her prayers, now that the war was over, she wished they would let her forget sometimes that things had not turned out as well as one had hoped the enjoyed the things that were left: the spring sunshine slanting into the quiet room, lighting up the flowers and the lovely ripe corn colour of Pooh-Bah's coat, the hot tea, the log fire burning on the hearth, whispering and fragrant, the feel of the dear old Bastard's chin [dog] resting on her shoe, the sound of the sea coming in the pauses of their talk.
"Don't!" she cried to them suddently. "It's this that matters--this!"
What, Mother?" asked Margaret...
"Beauty is truth?" asked Hilary, coming a little nearer.
But Nadine, without words, stretched out a hand and gently touched her mother-in-law's. They had both been married and borne children. Lucilla knew always, and Nadine in her more domesticated moments, that it was homemaking that mattered. Every home was a brick in the great wall of decent living that men erected over and over again as a bulwark against the perpetual flooding in of evil. But women made the bricks, and the durableness of each civilization depended upon their quality; and it was no good weakening oneself for the brickmaking by thinking too much about the flood."
Mrs. Miniver deals brilliantly with a German pilot breaking into her house, in the movie that celebrated the heroism of homefront England.