“Well-behaved women seldom make history,” wrote historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in a 1976 article about Puritan women. Ulrich was writing about women who were, by the standards of their time and place, well-behaved, and was trying to give them the recognition she believed they deserved. But that single sentence had a life of its own. Her quote has shown up on T-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, posters, and so on. And of course, the quote has been taken out of context . It’s also been attributed to more well-known feminists, such as Gloria Steinem.
And Ulrich doesn’t have a problem with her quote as a slogan, for she’s written a new book outlining the lives of women who were not well-behaved, at least, according to their time and place, and showing how they did make history. You can guess the title.
Ulrich’s recent appearance on The Diane Rehm Show reminded me of another quote taken out of context, but with unhappier results.
In 1964, Jack Weinberg, an activist with the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, was interviewed by a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Weinberg, then aged 24, got the feeling that the reporter was trying to label the student protest movement as Communist. As a gibe at the reporter, and to separate the movement from old-line Communists, he said, “We have a saying in the movement that you can’t trust anybody over thirty.”
In “Nice Guys Finish Seventh:” False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), Ralph Keyes writes:
“Among the few sixties radicals to stay active in social causes (Greenpeace, most recently), Weinberg was chagrined that his most lasting claim to fame is this puerile remark. ‘It’s a bit disappointing,’ he has observed, ‘that the one event that puts me in the history books--the one thing people ask me to comment on--is an off-the-wall-put-down I once made to a reporter.’ To make matters worse, the reporter he was trying to discredit as a reactionary turned out to be a veteran of progressive causes.”
And Weinberg often doesn’t even get credit for the quote, which is more frequently attributed to the likes of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Which brings us to Keyes’s axioms of misquotation:
1. Any quotation that can be altered will be
2. Famous quotes need famous mouths.
Ulrich’s line is pithy enough that it isn’t altered, while Weinberg’s gets shortened to “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” a minor change. Axiom 2 applies more to their lines. For a good example of the first axiom, let’s examine Keyes’s title, which is itself, a misquote.
“Nice guys finish last,” is probably Leo Durocher’s most famous quote, or rather, misquote. Keyes tells us what he really said. It was July 5, 1946, and Durocher was managing the Brooklyn Dodgers, who led the National League. Their crosstown rivals, the New York Giants, were in seventh place--next to last. Keyes describes an impromptu press conference that day:
“Although the Giants had beaten his team the day before, Durocher ridiculed their pathetic record and dinky home runs. Red Barber, Brooklyn’s radio announcer why he didn’t admit that the Giants’ home runs were as good as anyone’s. ’Why don’t you be a nice guy for a change,’ needled Barber.
“Durocher leaped to his feet. ’A nice guy?’ he shouted. ’A nice guy!’ I been around baseball for a long time and I’ve known a lot of nice guys. But I never saw a nice guy who was any good when you needed him….’
“Durocher pointed at the Giants’ dugout, saying, ’Nice guys! Look over there. Do you know a nicer guy than [Giants’ manager] Mel Ott? Or any of the other Giants? Why they’re the nicest guys in the world! And where are they? In seventh place!
“’The nice guys over there are in seventh place. Well let them come and get me.’
“He waved contemptuously toward the other dugout. ‘The nice guys are all over there. In seventh place.’
“That’s it, folks. That’s the genesis of ’Nice guys finish last,’ as reported by Frank Graham of New York’s Journal-American… When Graham’s original column was reprinted in Baseball Digest that fall, Durocher’s references to nice guys finishing in ’seventh place’ had been changed to ’last place’ and ’in the second division.’ Before long Leo’s credo was bumper-stickered into ’Nice guys finish last.’”
If you’re interested in quotes, and how they came to be, find a copy of “Nice Guys Finish Seventh.” But be prepared to find that the quotes of such greats as Benjamin Franklin, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, Winston Churchill, and many others, were not always original.