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Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History
Cover of Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History
Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History
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   From admired historian—and coiner of one of feminism's most popular slogans—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich comes an exploration of what it means for women to make...
   From admired historian—and coiner of one of feminism's most popular slogans—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich comes an exploration of what it means for women to make...
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  •    From admired historian—and coiner of one of feminism's most popular slogans—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich comes an exploration of what it means for women to make history.

       In 1976, in an obscure scholarly article, Ulrich wrote, "Well behaved women seldom make history."  Today these words appear on t-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, greeting cards, and all sorts of Web sites and blogs.  Ulrich explains how that happened and what it means by looking back at women of the past who challenged the way history was written.  She ranges from the fifteenth-century writer Christine de Pizan, who wrote The Book of the City of Ladies, to the twentieth century’s Virginia Woolf, author of A Room of One's Own.  Ulrich updates their attempts to reimagine female possibilities and looks at the women who didn't try to make history but did.  And she concludes by showing how the 1970s activists who created...

Excerpts-

  • From the book Chapter One: Three Writers

    Here are the stories of three women making history. One was a poet and scholar attached to a French court, another was an American activist, the third an English novelist. None was a historian in the conventional sense, but all three were determined to give women a history. The settings in which they worked were radically different. The problems they faced were surprisingly—disturbingly—the same.

    For each, a moment of illumination came through an encounter with an odious book.



    Paris, France, c. 1400

    Christine de Pizan sat in her study. Weary of serious reading, she opened a satire someone had given her for safekeeping. She knew better than to take its diatribes against women seriously, yet somehow its arguments disturbed her. Even the sight of the book made her wonder why so many learned men had “devilish and wicked thoughts about women.” She took more volumes from their shelves. Men’s opinions spilled out like a gushing fountain, filling her with doubt. “I could hardly find a book on morals where, even before I had read it in its entirety, I did not find several chapters or certain selections attacking women, no matter who the author was.” She began to think God had made a vile creature when he created woman.[1]

    In her despair she began to pray, asking why she could not have been born male. As she sat with her head bowed, tears streaming from her eyes, she discerned a beam of light falling on her lap just as a ray of sun might have done if it had been the right hour of the day. Looking up from her shadowed corner, Christine beheld a vision: standing before her were three radiant women. Terrified, she made the sign of the cross.

    The first woman spoke. “Dear daughter, do not be afraid, for we have not come here to harm or trouble you, but to console you.” Identifying herself as Lady Reason, the specter held up to Christine the mirror of self-knowledge. “Come back to yourself, recover your senses, and do not trouble yourself any more over such absurdities.” She told Christine that she and her companions, Lady Rectitude and Lady Justice, had come to help her build a city in which the fame of good women would endure against all assailants. Together they would restore the reputations of those unjustly accused.[2]

    Guided by her three visitors, Christine went back to books and discovered the lives of worthy women—queens, princesses, warriors, poets, inventors, weavers of tapestries, wives, mothers, sibyls, and saints. From their stories, she would build a city fit for the Queen of Heaven.



    Johnstown, New York, c. 1825

    Elizabeth Cady sat quietly in her father’s law office listening to the complaints of his widowed clients. Absorbing their tales of woe, she wondered why her father couldn’t do more to help them. When she asked him, Daniel Cady took a lawbook from its shelf and showed her the “inexorable statutes” that gave husbands the right to pass over their wives in favor of their sons. Married women, he explained, were civilly dead. Amused by Elizabeth’s distress, the law students in Cady’s office joined in the exercise, reading her “the worst laws they could find.” One teased her by saying that if she should grow up to become his wife, her new coral necklace and bracelets should be his. “I could take them and lock them up, and you could never wear them except with my permission. I could even exchange them for a box of cigars, and you could watch them evaporate in smoke.”[3]

    Elizabeth puzzled over the power of her...

About the Author-

  • LAUREL THATCHER ULRICH was born in Sugar City, Idaho. She holds degrees from the University of New Hampshire, University of Utah, and Simmons College. She is 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and past president of the American Historical Association. As a MacArthur Fellow, Ulrich worked on the PBS documentary based on her Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Midwife's Tale. Her work is also featured on an award-winning website called dohistory.org. She is immediate past president of the Mormon History Association. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    July 9, 2007
    In 1976, graduate student Ulrich asserted in an obscure scholarly article that “well-behaved women seldom make history.” But Ulrich, now at Harvard, made history, winning the Pulitzer and the Bancroft Prizes for A Midwife’s Tale
    —and her slogan did, too: it began popping up on T-shirts, greeting cards and buttons. Why the appeal, Ulrich wondered? And what makes a woman qualify as well-behaved or rebellious? Several chapters of this accessible and beautifully written study are brilliant. In one, Ulrich follows the lead of Virginia Woolf (who invented an ill-fated fictional sister of Shakespeare) by digging into what we know—and don’t know—about the women in the Bard’s family. In another, she offers a piercing analysis of “four 19th-century Harriets”—ex-slaves Tubman, Jacobs and Powell, and novelist Stowe—to uncover the interplay of race and gender in questions of liberation. And in a third, richly illustrated chapter, she utilizes a medieval book of days as a window into women’s labor through the ages. If other chapters, such as a wide-ranging exploration of the Amazon myth and a rumination on second-wave feminism, don’t cohere as tightly or showcase Ulrich’s strengths as an extraordinary interpreter of ordinary records, this can be forgiven in a work that is so often sharp and insightful. 26 illus.

  • The Washington Times

    "A bravura performance. . . . Ulrich is brilliant here. . . . Few have done as much to so profoundly enrich and enlarge our vision of the past."

    --The Boston Globe

    "The book is a pleasure to read. . . . Ulrich's style is plain and direct."

    --The Washington Post Book World

    "Ulrich writes with deep insight and humor about subjects that touch our daily lives."

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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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