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A well-behaved woman

Feminists don’t honor her, but she made something better than history

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This January’s women’s march didn’t make as big a splash as the one a year earlier, but it drew impressive numbers, an abundance of pink hats, and a sea of signs, some of which can’t be reproduced in a family magazine. One popular slogan is printable and worth considering, though: Well-behaved women seldom make history. Curious about the origin, I discovered that it first appeared in a scholarly essay about (of all things) Puritan burial customs in 17th-century New England. Then it became a book title and eventually a rallying cry for fourth-wave feminism.

A quick history: First-wave feminism, beginning in the 1840s and lasting for decades, finally won voting and property rights for women. The second wave (late 1960s-1970s) protested the restriction of women to the home and achieved legal abortion, among other things. The third wave rose in response to sexual harassment in the workplace. The fourth wave sweeps up the previous waves, along with every recent civil-rights cause, in an unfocused roar of dissatisfaction.

But let’s all calm down, and I’ll tell you about a well-behaved woman I knew. She was barely into her teens when her parents divorced—a rare occurrence in the 1930s—and shortly after that her mother joined households with two aunts and five rambunctious cousins. She was the first of her family to attend college, with hopes of becoming an architect, but had to drop out after freshman year because of a persistent national problem called the Great Depression.

Besides well-behaved, she was generous, hospitable, artistic, witty, faithful.

(One of those cousins sent a telegram with the bad news. I recall seeing it tucked in her college yearbook. It went something like this: We had to spend your tuition on tires stop. Sorry but with legs like yours who needs an education stop. Talk about sexist!)

During the war, while working at a startup credit union, she met a handsome Army MP 12 years her senior. She married him, and almost a year after V-J Day their first daughter was born. Two more baby-boom daughters followed over the next nine years. She loved mothering and homemaking, but in 1959, owing to her husband’s health problems, she had to take up her old job at the credit union. “Equal pay for equal work” wasn’t even a concept then, because the man of the house was almost always the breadwinner and compensated accordingly.

If she regretted giving up architecture, I never knew it. If she complained about going back to work, I never heard it. At times I thought she was too self-effacing, too self-contained, but those very qualities spared our family some of the drama I saw in my friends’ homes. Besides well-behaved, she was generous, hospitable, artistic, witty, faithful. She stuck with a sometimes-difficult marriage through good times and bad. After my father died, she traveled: road trips and cruises, two weeks in July at a church-sponsored English-language institute in Poland, two summers at a Christian publishing house in Vienna. She didn’t make history, but she made dozens of friends, hundreds of memories—and me.

Taking the human race as a whole, only a tiny fraction make history, and the history they make is as likely to be disruptive as positive. Fourth-wave feminism makes no distinction: Women demand to be treated with respect while carrying signs with scatological slogans. PBS offers an online lesson plan under the “Well-behaved women” title that challenges high-school students to break gender stereotypes. The featured historical example is Anne Bonny the pirate queen, who was spared hanging, after wreaking havoc in the Caribbean, only by revealing she was pregnant. Though PBS surely isn’t suggesting that today’s teen girls become pirates, feisty females get attention, even if they come up short on contentment.

What do faithful females get? As my mother told one of her Bible study groups (citing Proverbs 31), “Your children really do rise up and called you blessed.” Even if they don’t, your heavenly Father will someday. Well-behaved women may not make history, but they make civilization, and if they disappear, the outlook isn’t good.

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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John R Erickson

JBC:  Home run.  Excellent piece.  I have sent it to my "students" and they too were impressed.  Keep it up.



Waaay back in the 1940s farm life in Ohio was constant chores. But we never knew they were. It was life. Mom never stopped it seemed. To this day like you, if I just reflect for a moment, I see Mom doing, and doing. How she did it? She learned from her Mom. There was a time in our culture when being lazy was unexceptable. Thanks Janie for your story on Mom. For I think Moms do contribute much more to a culture than most think about. From generation to generation. 

Bob R

Well behaved women seldom make history; but the children often do, generally for positive contributions they make to society.  Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles for instance.


Great article!



Thank you, Janie. I love your comment that your mom made civilization. I pray more women (and men) would make that their goal rather than headlines. Your Mom made a difference as you are. Thanks again.