Arts & Culture

Ulrich explains that well-behaved women should make history

4 min read

Most bumper sticker slogans do not originate in academic publications. However, in the 1970s, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich penned in a scholarly article about the funeral sermons of Christian women that “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” The phrase subsequently gained wide popularity, appearing on T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other items — and it’s now the title of Ulrich’s latest book.

The new book explores how and why it is that women who act in unexpected ways tend to be remembered, while more conventional women fade into the past. Ulrich breaks down the traditional good girl/bad girl stereotypes, and shows that women — and men — who make history are, in fact, multidimensional and should not be constrained by such a polarizing formulation.

“This phrase began in a scholarly context, and moved into popular culture,” says Ulrich, 300th Anniversary University Professor in the Department of History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “This book responds to that curious situation, and, because of the popularity of the slogan, it offers an opportunity to reach out to those who might not take a history course, and encourage them to ask new questions about the nature of history.”

Ulrich examines the lives of three women from very different times: Christine de Pizan, who lived in a 15th century French court and wrote “The City of Ladies,” a book of women’s biographies; the 19th century suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton; and 20th century writer Virginia Woolf. For these women — who were not historians — history was integral to their own thought and work, and they went on to make history themselves.

In “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History” (Knopf, September 2007), Ulrich examines a pivotal moment in each of these women’s lives, describing ways in which they broke with conventional behavior in order to re-create themselves and make a place in history. For Christine de Pizan, the moment was when she included Amazons, or women warriors, in “The City of Ladies.” For Stanton it was an encounter with a runaway slave that helped shape her position on women’s suffrage. And for Woolf, it was the creation of Shakespeare’s gifted, imaginary sister and the trials that she would have faced as a female writer.

Each of these women struggled to answer scholarly and historical questions that, because of the contemporary lack of scholarship on women’s history, they could not adequately address in their own times. Utilizing the tools produced by the remarkable flourishing of women’s history scholarship over the past 30 years, Ulrich takes a new look at the questions raised by the three women during three very different historical periods.

While telling the stories of these history-making women, Ulrich illuminates the intended meaning behind the slogan that is the title of her book. When the slogan appears out of context, it becomes open to wide interpretation, and has, subsequently, been used as a call to activism and sensational — even negative — behavior. In fact, Ulrich says, the phrase points to the reasons that women’s lives have limited representation in historical narrative, and she goes on to look at the type of people and events that do become public record.

Throughout history, “good” women’s lives were largely domestic, notes Ulrich. Little has been recorded about them because domesticity has not previously been considered a topic that merits inquiry. It is only through unconventional or outrageous behavior that women’s lives broke outside of this domestic sphere, and therefore were recorded and, thus, remembered by later generations. Ulrich points out that histories of “ordinary” women have not been widely known because historians have not looked carefully at their lives, adding that by exploring this facet of our past, we gain a richer understanding of history.

“People express such surprise when they discover that women have a history. It is liberating that the past can not be reduced to such stereotypes,” says Ulrich. “I hope that someone would take away from this book that ordinary people could have an impact, and to try doing the unexpected. I would like to show that history is something that one can contribute to.”