Sunday, September 23, 2007

Reviewed: Ulrich, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (Knopf), is reviewed in today's Boston Globe by Sharon Ullman. She writes:

When Laurel Thatcher Ulrich published "A Midwife's Tale" in 1991, the quiet revolution taking place in the academy went fully public. Discovering the history of women and entering it into the stories we tell ourselves about the past had been the focus of intense agitation by feminist activists since the late 1960s. By the mid-1970s, a rising number of women were entering history PhD programs for the first time in a generation. Many began to research, write, and almost literally force open the historical doors.

Ulrich was one of those pioneers. Many more followed in their wake. History departments changed, course curricula expanded, and the study of history itself altered forever. Yet, based on the bestseller lists, one might think history was simply a series of battles and be unaware that something else was afoot in universities across the country. Then came "A Midwife's Tale." With this beautifully written excavation of a decidedly average woman's daily life in Colonial America, Ulrich produced not only a Pulitzer and Bancroft Prize-winning volume, but also a bestseller that enchanted a popular audience thrilled to read about women's lives in the distant American past.

Her new book, "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History," carries a familiar title. You've probably seen it on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and coffee mugs. In the 1990s, it became a feminist slogan, used to exhort women to be . . . well, less polite. But it was Ulrich who actually wrote that phrase in a 1976 essay, and her meaning was somewhat different. She wasn't urging women to take to the streets; instead she was calling on herself - and other historians - to look more closely at those women who did not. Yet the phrase took on a life of its own, one Ulrich bemusedly documents in the opening chapter of this engaging exploration into the implications of her now-famous remark.

Continue reading here.