A Study in “Well-Behaved Women”

“Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History” – I have seen this quote attributed to a number of great female role models, most notably Eleanor Roosevelt. However, the famous first-lady never said this. Instead, these oft-quoted words were first written down by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in an article about Puritan funeral services.


Now, I will admit, that as a historian, I have read Ulrich’s work before, but for the most part, the public hasn’t. Also, unlike the way the phrase is used today to imply that women must “misbehave” in order to make history, Ulrich instead first meant the words to lament the fact that many of the important stories of “well-behaved” women are overlooked in favor of the not so well-behaved.

It has been the effort of future women’s history enthusiasts to encourage the study of all women, both well-behaved and otherwise.

March is Women’s History Month. Begun as Women’s History Week in California during the week of March 8, 1978, the movement gained interest throughout the country. In 1987, Congress declared March “National Women’s History Month.” Since then, events held during the month of March have brought focus on the achievements of women in American History.

For this Women’s History Month, I am honored to be a part of an exhibit that will showcase the lives of 10 Eastern Shore Women (both well-behaved and not so well-behaved) during the events of the Civil War. What began as interesting stories during the course of Kellee Blake’s research as she wrote her book on the Civil War events on the Eastern Shore, has evolved into a multi-program event, which kicks off with a exhibit opening at Ker Place entitled Stronger than Steel:

On the eve of the Civil War, ten women on Virginia’s Eastern Shore lived different lives. They were Shorewomen whose stories endure through documents and artifacts. Their journeys over the course of four life-changing years, reveal a level of determination, faith and resolve that proved Stronger than Steel.

The lives of these women were pieced together through diaries, newspapers, and federal documents that were saved by both private families and public archives. From a battle of letters between a school teacher and General Benjamin Butler, to the worried writings of a seventeen-year-old girl, Stronger than Steel is sure to showcase and bring to light these women’s achievements. If nothing else, Stronger than Steel proves that while it may be that “well-behaved women seldom make history” their stories are still there, waiting to be found and made a part of history.

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Stronger than Steel is a multi-program event, featuring an exhibit, lectures and performance:

Stronger than Steel Exhibit Opening Reception

March 4th, 2016. 5-7pm, Ker Place, Onancock

Lunch and Lecture with Kellee Blake:

“The Fight of their Lives:  Finding the Stories of Civil War Women”

April 8th, 2016. 11am-1pm, Ker Place, Onancock.

Evening Panel Discussion

“The End of an Era: Top 10 Moments in the Civil War on the Eastern Shore”

April 22, 2016. 6pm, Onancock Baptist Church, Onancock.

Live Performance

Stronger than Steel: Civil War Voices of Eastern Shore Women

May 20-21, 2016, North Street Playhouse.
Stronger than Steel is open March-June 2016. Please visit www.shorehistory.org or like us on Facebook for more information.

The Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society would like to thank Chesapeake Outdoor and the Virginia Foundation of the Humanities for sponsoring the event.



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