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Book explores women in history

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Alfred A. Knopf, 2007, 285 pages.


Laurel Ulrich is an historian, a Harvard professor and the recipient of many awards for her work, but the title and focus of this book arose from a single line in a paper she wrote in 1976.

To her astonishment, it has gained widespread exposure, appearing in such varied contexts as scholarly and popular articles, and on T-shirts, coffee mugs and bumper stickers.

Going beyond her inadvertent slogan, in this interesting book she considers first what "well-behaved" has meant historically, and then what it means to make history. Being a third generation feminist, I curiously read on, enjoying it all.

Traditional examples of good behavior (for women, that is) often seem to be taught in a sort of a code, such as "considerate means deferential; respectful means obedient; polite means silent;" or according to another writer, "well-behaved women's job is 'to bind the wounds, stir the soup and bear the children of those whose mission is to fight the wars, rule nations and define the cosmos.'"

It's not hard to see why these traits haven't made history. Ulrich captures well what does make history with her observation that "serious history is not just what happened in the past. It is what later generations choose to remember."

As examples of women who have made a remembered difference, she describes three writers who were "determined to give women a history." They were Christine de Pizan, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Virginia Woolf. They lived in radically different times and settings, but with disturbingly similar problems.

Christine de Pizan (1363-1434) was a poet and scholar in the French court with a father who had encouraged her education, contrary to the custom of their time. As a young widow she supported her family by extensive writing, notably her allegorical "Book of the City of Ladies," a collection of female biographies raising "surprisingly contemporary issues" such as violence against women. One critic said "It's not so much that Christine's consciousness is surprisingly modern, but rather that the problems facing women in our own time are surprisingly archaic."

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), was an American activist who titled her memoir, "Eighty Years and More: Remembering Rebellion." Recalling her childhood wish to become her father's yearned-for son, she decided that to become a boy, she must become both "learned and courageous." In the process, she also became a rebel against the social restrictions of her time, and a vigorous and effective abolitionist.

Virginia Woolf (1912-1941) was an English novelist. Using the freedom of the fiction genre, she explored and deplored the many layers of differences between men's and women's traditional worlds, most notably in her novel, "A Room of One's Own."

After introducing the three writers, Ulrich moves on to chapters on particular aspects of each one's work.

First she expands on Pizan's warrior women, the Amazons of myth and possibly of history as well.

In this fascinating chapter she observes that "stories from the Amazon dance between myth and history. The human need to push against the boundaries of gender does seem universal."

Next, Ulrich turns to Stanton and women's roles in the intertwined 19th century movements toward the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage.

In this richly textured chapter, Stanton, as well as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, and other remarkable and hardly well-behaved women come alive far beyond our standard textbook accounts.

To me, these passages were especially moving so soon after watching the masses of upturned, joyfully tear-stained black and white faces crowding into Chicago's Grant Park on the night of President Barack Obama's election, and the widely diverse and jubilant millions on the Washington, D.C., Mall at his inauguration.

Woolf considers many similar issues in her fiction. In her signature novel, she too looks at the disabilities under which women have labored for too long. Approaching this in a very imaginative way, she invents a sister, Judith, for William Shakespeare, "as agog to see the world as he was." But not sent to school, as was her brother, "she may have picked up a book, even attempted to write, but more likely was given stockings to mend."

Ulrich has found an amazing array of sources to study the lives of ordinary, unheralded women as well as those who have made history. Her sources range from literary works by and about women, to religious and secular court records, to medieval paintings depicting women doing many unconventional things (for women, that is), stories behind Pomo Indian women's basket weaving, even warrior chronicles.

A particularly moving passage describes the rich oral history expressed in quilts from the isolated community of Gee's Bend, Alabama. Ulrich calls these "an art that grew out of the unbearable tension between the probable and the possible," as they portrayed the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

Still other equally rich accounts tell of supposedly traditional women across the world banding together to protest injustices.

Many of these sources have only recently seen the light of our day.

This is a scholarly work; nevertheless, as a non-scholarly reader prompted by an interest in women's evolving place in history, I found it to be compelling reading, well worth my investment of time and thought.

Finally, Ulrich looks at "second wave feminism," from Betty Friedan's 1963 landmark book, "The Feminine Mystique," to NOW, the National Organization for Women (to "bring women into the mainstream of American society now"), as well as women organizing within the 1960s antiwar movement and on into the multiple expressions of feminism in our present day.

Looking back, Ulrich quotes one pioneer: "It is startling to realize that in the early 1960s married women could not borrow money in their own names, and graduate schools regularly imposed quotas of 5-10 percent on the number of women they would admit." Today, says Ulrich, "most women (along with more and more men as well) support feminist programs: equal education, equal pay, child care, freedom from harassment and violence," and so on.

She reminds us, however, that "if history is to enlarge our understanding of human experience, it must include stories that dismay as well as inspire ... (so we find that) women have been on both sides of most revolutions. There is no universal sisterhood, no single history of women."

"In the past three decades, there has been a true renaissance in history," Ulrich concludes, "one driven by amateurs and activists as well as by professional historians. This book is a celebration of that work ... my gift to all of those who continue to make history -through action, through record-keeping, and through remembering."

My grandmother, early widowed, raised and educated five daughters long before there were social programs to help. One of those daughters, my mother, was a quiet feminist long before the term became current.

They would have understood and welcomed Ulrich's book as well.