- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007

In 1991, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard” won the Pulitzer Prize in history. Blending vigorous scholarship and a genuine sympathy for the lives of ordinary women, Ms. Ulrich, now Phillips professor of early american history and 300th Anniversary university professor at Harvard, used Martha Ballard’s story to shed light on the struggles of early American women in the household and in the local market economy beyond.

So there is something of an almost wry undertone in Ms. Ulrich’s introduction to “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History,” where she acknowledges that a phrase tucked into her first scholarly paper, one written in 1975, took on a market life of its own. Her subject was funeral services celebrating the lives of pious women, and in it she wrote:

“Cotton Mather called them ‘the hidden ones.’ They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question God or the magistrates. They prayed secretly, read the Bible through at least once a year, and went to hear the minister preach even when it snowed. Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

Ms. Ulrich makes note of the fact that this phrase — her phrase — has turned up T-shirts, coffee mugs and bumper stickers. “The Sweet Potato Queens of Jackson, Mississippi have adopted it as an ‘official maxim,’ selling their own pink-and-green T-shirt along another that reads ‘Never Wear Panties to a Party.’”

But Ms. Ulrich also acknowledges that “the ambiguity of the slogan surely accounts for its appeal.” She adds, “When I wrote that ‘well-behaved women seldom make history,’ I was making a commitment to help recover lives of otherwise obscure women. I had no idea that thirty years later, my own words would come back to me transformed. While I like some of the uses of my slogan more than others, I wouldn’t call it back even if I could.”

What she does, however, is use it as a launching pad for an inquiry into “how and under what circumstances women have made history.” Not limiting herself to early American women, she uses “three classic works in western feminism that were rediscovered about the time I began my own work: Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Eighty Years and More, and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.”

The result is a book that, without polemicizing, brings readers closer to these three women, the conventions they defied and the people they touched. “All three breached the equality/difference divide: Pizan invited women warriors into a city dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Stanton turned grandmothers’ tales into a political argument. Woolf allowed an androgynous mind to comprehend a woman’s culture. All three demonstrated that women were both like and unlike men, and they argued that stories told from a female perspective changed presumably universal notions of human behavior.”

Because the book is so wide-ranging across time and ideas, readers who enjoyed the “A Midwife’s Tale,” with the author’s lens focused on a single time in history, may struggle here. But the effort is worth it. Ms. Ulrich writes with deep insight and humor about subjects that touch our daily lives, starting with housework.

“Elizabeth Cady Stanton despised those who waxed poetic about the ‘home as a woman’s sphere,’ while denying a wife even the right to move a stove without her husband’s permission. In the early years of marriage, she enjoyed housekeeping. But as her family expanded, she discovered that keeping ‘half a dozen human beings in proper trim’ was exhausting and lonely work. To make things worse, her children were constantly sick… .

“It wasn’t housework that distressed Virginia Woolf. It was the battle with an ideal that she called The Angel in the House. Such a woman ‘excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it — in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.’ In order to become a writer, Woolf had to kill the Angel. ‘My excuse , if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me.”

Ms. Ulrich does not hide the fact that she is and always has been a feminist, but whether she is discussing de Pizan’s Amazons, one of the most delightful sections of the book, or Woolf’s fictionalized story about Shakespeare’s sister, common sense and fairness abound. She acknowledges that Stanton, the legendary suffragist, opposed abortion and writes:

“Today the ‘Feminists for Life’ website sells a commemorative mug displaying a picture of a bonneted Elizabeth Cady Stanton with a baby on her lap and the caption ‘Another humorless old biddy for life.’ The explanatory legend urges supporters to invite their ‘feminist foremothers over for coffee this morning and start a revolution by tea time!’”

At the end of her book Ms. Ulrich writes, “Well-behaved women make history when they do the unexpected, when their actions produce records, and when later generations care.”

Sweet Potato Queens of Jackson, take note.


By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Knopf, $24, 270 pages, illus.

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