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Well-Behaved Women Make History Too

What gets lost when it’s only the rebel girls who get lionized?

In 1976, the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich published a scholarly article about the representation of women in early American funeral sermons. It was her first published article, and its first paragraph ended with a flourish: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Millions of T-shirts, fridge magnets, bumper stickers, and tote bags later, the message is unavoidable: To make history, a woman has to misbehave. To date, the two most successful Kickstarter publishing projects of all time are anthologies of feminist bedtime stories for “rebel girls.” Conceived by a duo of Italian entrepreneurs, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls Volumes 1 and 2 now retail for $35 apiece, along with posters, greetings cards, and audiobooks. They carry the explicit intention of inspiring young readers to “be more confident” and “set bigger goals,” leaving space at the end of the books for them to draw their own portrait and write their own life story. The million-dollar success of the Rebel Girls enterprise lies in a combination of stylish design, savvy marketing, and the yawning gap in the market for real women’s stories. It’s a gap that conventional publishers have rushed in to fill, but when we cherry-pick the past for icons of female rebellion, are we really serving women, or history?

If you’re the parent of a girl between the ages of 4 and 14, you’ve probably watched your daughter unwrap at least one of these anthologies: Women Who Dared, Bygone Badass Broads, Bad Girls Throughout History, Girls Who Rocked the World, Rad American Women A–Z, or Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted. Vashti Harrison’s Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History and Rachel Ignotofsky’s two collections of “fearless” women in first science and then sports offer a more specialized take. All these lavishly illustrated, lively, uplifting, and scrupulously inclusive anthologies collapse enormous gulfs of time, place, experience, culture, and identity, to assemble women as diverse as the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut, Ada Lovelace, and Serena Williams at the same fantasy dinner party.

There’s no doubt that these books are a valuable corrective to the shelves of histories in which straight white boys grow up to be heroes—as the nonprofit advocacy group We Need Diverse Books has highlighted, it’s vital for children to see themselves reflected in the books they read. But when it comes to helping young people understand their place in history, the shallow kaleidoscope of inspirational biography can’t help but imply that the only women worth remembering are those who stand alone. This narrative obscures the realities of women’s lives, downplays the costs of rebellion, and consigns whole communities to obscurity for lacking the spirit to rebel. This heroic version of history reflects a fundamentally masculine narrative of genius and exceptionalism that is the root cause of women’s underrepresentation in history books in the first place.

The women celebrated in these books as heroines are often firsts, those who have managed to break through into some professional or political arena previously dominated by men. There are plenty of leaders, singular and isolated by the nature of their position, who are celebrated for the fact of ...