“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich made this observation in 1976, commenting on why women’s lives are (or are not) recorded and studied in history books. The line quickly became a feminist slogan and is used more broadly today. As a bumper-sticker message, it suggests that only by shrugging off social norms and disobeying the rules can women achieve greatness and expect their names and accomplishments to live on after them.

Certainly, there have been times (and indeed there are presently places) where rule-breaking or “misbehaving” has been needed to draw attention to the plight of women. In U.S. history, civil disobedience during the women’s suffrage and civil-rights movements helped women make enormous strides. In Iran in 2023, Iranian women uncovered their hair in public to protest the killing by security forces of Mahsa Amini for “improper” wearing of the hijab.

But today in the U.S., the spirit behind the slogan now largely feeds into agitation for progressive politics and against “repressive” gender roles. You can buy merchandise coupling the slogan with images of Nancy Pelosi or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It’s been associated with Kamala Harris and Ana Maria Archila, the protester who accosted then-senator Jeff Flake in an elevator during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In pop culture, a 2020 musical titled Well-Behaved Women celebrated the stories of many historical women, including the biblical Eve. (Ironically, Eve’s story should demonstrate, if anything, that not all misbehavior is worth celebrating.)

Originally descriptive, Ulrich’s line has become twisted to be prescriptive. In this sense, the slogan is cheap and polarizing, and more importantly, it may discourage certain behaviors or choices that, while seen by some as mundane or old-fashioned, offer many women fulfillment and joy.

Choosing the conventional path of marriage and family life is not only very likely to bring women stability and happiness (as social-science research shows), but by establishing strong marriages, homes, and families, such women contribute to something much larger than themselves. They are indeed making history by helping to set the course for a strong society.

Importantly, being a wife and mother and achieving historical recognition are not mutually exclusive. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the subjects of Ulrich’s 2008 book, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, was married to Henry Stanton for 47 years, until his death. They had seven children. When family life made traveling for her advocacy work too difficult, Stanton would write speeches for Susan B. Anthony to deliver. In our day, Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett demonstrates that marriage and motherhood need not hold one back from reaching the highest level of success and influence, indeed making history.

But countless more wives and mothers whose names we do not know have also shaped history. These women, and their influence, are given short shrift in a world where we see history as a collection of celebrity contributions. In fact, Ulrich herself would agree, which is why her life’s work has been to investigate and celebrate lesser-known “ordinary” women. Civilizations rise and fall in part because of the actions of their leaders but largely because of the quiet actions of their citizens.

The truth is, very few people, male or female, earn a spot in history books because of path-breaking careers, influential political leadership, or contributing to a new invention. But this does not mean that ordinary lives are without consequence. On the contrary, how we order our personal lives has an enormous impact on the direction of our communities and even our country. In choosing interdependence (as married people do) and self-sacrifice (as parents do) over individual fame or material wealth, we foster greater security and stability for the next generation.

A mountain of social science (compiled in two recent books, Melissa Kearney’s The Two-Parent Privilege and Brad Wilcox’s Get Married) supports this. Speaking of good behavior: Kids who grow up in married, two-parent homes are less likely to get in trouble at school or with the law. They are more likely to experience better mental health, do well in school, and avoid poverty.

Marriage is also a boon to men. Married men have clear incentives (not to mention support) to achieve success in the workplace and elsewhere, and the evidence suggests that they do. They earn more money and experience greater levels of happinessbetter mental health, and longer lives than their single counterparts. Married men are also less violent and less likely to commit crimes.

Consider the early settlement of America. Women played an “indispensable” role, boldly and bravely leaving England to establish households and communities in the New World. The men of the Virginia Company couldn’t have done it alone, and without women, the great endeavor of settling America would have ended in just one generation.

Today, we are witnessing a real-time, large-scale experiment in what happens when many women avoid — or miss out on — marriage and having children, roles in which women can exert profound influence while having the greatest chance for their own happiness. Many of the problems in our society are downstream from the problems facing the family.

When women are encouraged to flout traditional norms, either through libertine sex lives or no-fault, no-guilt divorce, they suffer, as do men and children. And even when women are encouraged to simply prioritize careers, material gain, or insta-fame over home and family, there are society-level consequences: fertility rates in a nosedive, political polarization, and a large-scale mental-health crisis. These challenges are shaping the course of our history right now, whether we recognize it or not.

Of course, women aren’t more responsible for the breakdown of the family than men are. Nor are we more responsible for the direction of history. The point is: We are also not less responsible. Women, including those whose names are unfamiliar or forgotten, have made an equal, however distinct, contribution to cohesive, thriving societies. Making the present better and the future brighter is a legacy to be proud of.