Did Marilyn Monroe Say, ‘Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History’?

The quote has become famous, but its original context was different than what many assume.

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Marilyn Monroe
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Marilyn Monroe once said, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

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Misattributed
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Fact Check

Marilyn Monroe is known for, among other things, being the icon of 20th century blonde bombshells. But did she also coin the famous phrase, “Well-behaved women seldom make history?”

No, but many on the internet seem to think so. You can even buy products bearing the quote, misattributed to Monroe, at various retail outlets. So where did the quote come from?

Not Marilyn Monroe. Monroe is the originator of many a sassy zinger, like, “A wise girl knows her limits, a smart girl knows that she has none,” and, “If I’d observed all the rules, I’d never have got anywhere.”

The latter quote is similar in meaning to the phrase in question, which is perhaps where the confusion comes from.

But the phrase originated in the 1970s with Harvard history professor and author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Ulrich coined it in a scholarly paper she wrote about eulogies for women in pre-Revolutionary War America. After the phrase became famous, Ulrich wrote a book that discussed the array of reactions to it.

In an interview with PBS, Ulrich said that the phrase really took off in the public eye when a woman reached out to her and asked if she could print the slogan on a T-shirt. “I started getting fan mail, it was really bizarre,” Ulrich stated.

In the interview, host Marcia Franklin pointed out that to many, the phrase has come to mean more or less what Marilyn Monroe meant when she said, “If I’d observed all the rules, I’d never have got anywhere,” or, in order to be remarkable or famous, women can’t follow traditional gender roles.

Ulrich described the phrase as a bit of a toss-off in her paper, an expression of frustration with the fact that historians in the 1970s took a narrow view on women during the pre-Revolutionary War period. Most of what was being written about women during that time was about the Salem witch trials, Ulrich said.

Ulrich also addressed the fact that the phrase has taken on a life of its own since she originally wrote it.

“There are probably things that I would not choose [to be associated with] or that would not represent me,” she said. “But mainly, I sort of think once you write those words, they’re really not yours anymore. And people have the right to interpret them the way they want to interpret them.”

Sources:

Lavoie, Amy. “Ulrich Explains That Well-Behaved Women Should Make History.” Harvard Gazette, 20 Sept. 2007, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2007/09/ulrich-explains-that-well-behaved-women-should-make-history/.

Berrington, Katie. “Marilyn Monroe Quotes.” British Vogue, 1 June 2017, https://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/marilyn-monroe-best-quotes.