Well-Behaved Women and History

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History One of the books that I picked up at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women was Pulitzer Prize winner and Harvard faculty member Laurel Thatcher Ulrich‘s Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. Thanks to Random House for making that freely available to conference-goers who signed up for their mailing list. (See, this kind of stuff is why you want to go to academic conferences. Free or discounted books!)

This book reads more like a linked collection of essays than your conventional academic work. That makes it easy to pick up and, if you had to put it down as I did, making my way back across parts of two countries to come home, always a joy to pick back up. The title of the book comes from an academic article Ulrich published early in her career in which she noted of virtuous early American women “Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history.” That line launched a tidal wave of popular culture awareness, appearing on t-shirts, mugs, posters and other paraphernalia, as the author ruefully and gratefully recounts. This book, she writes, is her “gift to all of those who continue to make history–through action, through record-keeping and through remembering.”

What a gift it is: she opens by retelling the stories of three women writers: Christine de Pizan, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Virginia Woolf. While highlighting their differences (and there were many!), Professor Ulrich also highlights their similarities that link a fifteenth century continental courtier, a nineteenth century American suffragist and a twentieth century English avant-garde author: the burning need to recount women’s history. While their stories might well be familiar to you as they were to me, I had to love how beautifully the book laid out their lives and linked their experiences. Ulrich is wonderfully accomplished at drawing the reader into the stories of these women and then spinning those themes back out in the following chapters.

As the book progresses, we return time and again to these three women and many more as Ulrich tackles themes of women as warriors, artists, slaves, labourers and activists. You’ll learn how women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton both aided and overlooked the cause of abolition in her own single-minded focus on women’s rights, as well as how many women were celebrated in one era only to be forgotten in short term. Their rescuers, historians of women’s history, have restored these great women (such as Harriet Tubman and Christine de Pizan) to our historical awareness: they, too, earn praise from Ulrich.

As the author of A Midwife’s Tale, Ulrich is wonderfully prepared to tell stories of women’s overlooked lives. As a seasoned classroom teacher, she’s also honed a series of analytic vignettes that come to play in this book: you see why women’s history is important not from a lecture, but from experiencing it through the stories unfolding. Even women historians come in for some history here: a lovely series of vignettes explains how scholars like Joan Kelly and Renate Bridenthal came to embrace (and significantly shape) the nascent field of women’s history. Ulrich also weaves into her account the evolution of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians from the only informal option for professional women to a huge and hugely influential academic society.

All through, she hammers home why we need to care about women’s history. I’ll sum up with some words from her last chapter, “Making History”:

If history is to enlarge our understanding of human experience, it must include stories that dismay as well as inspire. It must also include the lives of those whose presumed good behavior prevents us from taking them seriously. If well-behaved women seldom make history, it is not only because gender norms have constrained the range of female activity but history hasn’t been very good at capturing the lives of those whose contributions have been local and domestic. . . .
Well-behaved women make history when they do the unexpected, when they create and preserve records, and when later generations care.

If you are curious about those generations of women who stretch back to Anon and forward to today, or you simply appreciate a well-written work of sweeping scholarship, you are sure to appreciate this book. Buy the book, buy the t-shirt, buy the bumper sticker, too, and think about making history while you’re at it!

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4 Comments

Filed under history, review

4 responses to “Well-Behaved Women and History

  1. Thanks for this article. I’ve never really considered myself a women’s historian, but your comments illuminated for me some of the struggles the subject of my current work-in-progress faced.

    • jliedl

      I came to women’s history late in my career but I’ve found it particularly worthwhile. There’s a lot still to be studied and fresh perspectives on many historical subjects just from taking the new perspectives offered by scholars like Ulrich!

  2. well what the heck? i didn’t know to sign up for my free book. Still, makes excellent cross post for my history inclined students. Thanks for writing it up

    • jliedl

      I almost missed the sign-up notice and stacks of free books when going through the book room on Friday. Sorry you didn’t get that, but it is a great book to introduce a lot of history without making it a painful exercise!