Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

The web site of the Sweet Potato Queens of Jackson, Mississippi, a determinedly outrageous women’s group, features a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History” alongside another that reads “Never Wear Panties to a Party.” For Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of the first quote, the fact that these two shirts don’t seem out of place together is a measure of how much her words have been transformed since their original appearance in a 1976 scholarly article on the funeral sermons of Puritan women in Colonial America.

Ulrich calls the slogan her “runaway sentence” — it has shown up not just on clothing but on bumper stickers, tote bags, coffee mugs, and greeting cards. She has, over the years, collected responses to her words that have inspired, amused, and, in rare cases, offended her (a magnet with the quote over a leopard-print stiletto and a burning cigarette). But in her latest book, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (her “seldom” was changed to “rarely” in some versions), the Harvard historian makes it clear that the sentence — which, standing alone, resembled an exhortation to women to “misbehave” — was in fact an exhortation to history to pay attention to the lives of all women, regardless of how humdrum they appeared to be.

This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Ulrich’s work. She has built her reputation on the painstaking examination of primary sources that, to less probing eyes, wouldn’t seem to yield much (she sums up her career as ” about things that other people find…boring”). Her Pulitzer Prize?winning A Midwife’s Tale is a case in point: She takes the often oblique, often terse diary entries of midwife Martha Ballard and transforms them into a vital, captivating history of rural life in Maine during the late 18th century.

It’s slightly disappointing that Well-Behaved Women is a departure from that M.O. Its purpose is to explore how women have made it into the historical record, and in doing so it jumps around from era to era and relies more on the work of other scholars than on Ulrich’s own research. Thus, the book is not the thrilling work of history we expect from Ulrich; still, like her previous output, it’s thought-provoking, lively, and beautifully written.

So which women have made history? Flip Ulrich’s quotation — misbehaving women often make history? — and you get a clue. Until the relatively recent boom in women’s studies, which led scholars like Ulrich to sources like Ballard’s dusty diary, it was the fornicators, the adulterers, and the witches who were more likely to show up in written sources like newspapers and court records than those who quietly went about their business. (Then, as now, sex sells.) “History hasn’t been very good at capturing the lives of those whose contributions have been local and domestic,” Ulrich writes.

Ulrich celebrates women from the past whose misbehavior took the form of writing when females weren’t encouraged to do so. She organizes the book around texts by three such women: The Book of the City of Ladies, a collection of female biographies by Christine de Pizan, who lived in 15th-century France; Eighty Years and More, the 1898 memoir by legendary suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton; and A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s semifictional essay about women and writing. The author doesn’t say too much about why she chose these works in particular, but that randomness is somehow fitting in a book that finds Ulrich following her interests wherever they lead her in the service of a larger argument: Women must produce records for future historians to unearth.

Happily, in recent decades, women both ordinary and extraordinary, rebellious and tame, have increasingly been able to grab the historical spotlight. Ulrich credits this development to the women’s movement of the ’60s and ’70s: Among its other achievements, second-wave feminism pushed for the inclusion of women both in textbooks and in the professoriat. Feminist scholars have rescued out-of-print works by de Pizan, Stanton, and countless others from obscurity, and in describing the progress in her field, Ulrich forcefully makes the point that history isn’t just a dutiful record of what happened — it’s something that’s created “when later generations care.”

So knowing where Ulrich was coming from, should you retire your “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History” tote bag if you’ve meant it not as a comment on history but as a you-go-girl motto for women who act up? Ulrich would surely say no. As a historian, she’s no stranger to the ways women have had to flout convention as part of the long struggle for their rights. And, more generally, she’s acutely aware of how meaning is always up for grabs. “Historical icons can be appropriated for contradictory causes,” she writes. If that’s true, then so too can her words. They may have been intended to call attention to the invisible lives of those proper Puritan women, but now they also belong to those who support a woman’s right to leave her underwear home in the drawer.

What a different world than the one Woolf lived in. As Ulrich recounts in the book’s most compelling section, the novelist, in 1929’s A Room of One’s Own, set out to discover how British women lived during Elizabethan times. Woolf wonders why “no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet.” With the history books basically silent on the subject of women’s lives, she turned to fiction to answer her question, inventing Judith Shakespeare, a sister of the Bard who, because of her sex, is unable to develop her gifts as a poet. The imaginary Judith is eventually seduced and abandoned; pregnant, she kills herself. As far as Woolf knew, such would have been the fate of a talented female writer in Shakespeare’s time.

Ulrich follows her retelling of Woolf with biographies of Aemilia Lanyer and Elizabeth Cary, writers born in the Elizabethan era whose work was discovered centuries later. In a poignant conclusion to the chapter, she writes that Woolf, without knowing it, pursued the wrong path of inquiry. The salient question, in Ulrich’s words, isn’t why women didn’t write, but “why was it that Woolf knew nothing about the women writers who were contemporaries of Shakespeare? The records were there, but no one had bothered to look.” Woolf, of course, is now herself an established member of the literary canon; what a touching irony that Room, meant to encourage the flourishing of women’s literature, has its own blind spot towards women writers. Overcoming substantial obstacles, women had been making history all along, but in Woolf’s lifetime, history hadn’t yet caught up with them.