A prize-winning scholar explores the hidden history of women.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, September 9, 2007



By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Knopf. 284 pp. $24

At the beginning of her career as a historian of early America, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich published an article entitled "Virtuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735." Could anything sound more narrowly academic than that -- a scholarly examination of a small subset of Puritan funeral sermons? But Ulrich's paper was destined to have a long history. It opened this way:

"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."

Since 1976, when that paragraph was printed in American Quarterly, Ulrich's final ringing sentence has appeared -- sometimes with the word "rarely" replacing "seldom" -- on T-shirts, coffee mugs and buttons. It has gradually grown into one of the best-known slogans of modern feminism.

Ulrich herself went on to publish other works about early American women, including A Midwife's Tale, which won the Bancroft and Pulitzer Prizes. She also became a distinguished Harvard professor and for many years taught a core course called "Women, Feminism, and History." Though she never quite says so, I suspect that that course provides the basis for this short survey of feminism from the Middle Ages to the present. But don't worry: Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History is by no means jargon-ridden or academic in tone. Ulrich's style is plain and direct, agreeable but without frills, and she moves efficiently right along. The book is a pleasure to read.

It is structured around three representative female intellectuals and activists: Christine de Pizan, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Virginia Woolf. In her opening chapter, Ulrich summarizes their lives and the arguments of their most famous feminist works: Christine's The Book of the City of Ladies; Stanton's memoir Eighty Years and More; and Woolf's polemical A Room of One's Own. In subsequent chapters, she then picks up an idea or theme from the books and reflects on its history and current importance. For instance, the 15th-century Book of the City of Ladies-- which celebrates the achievements of women in literature, history and myth -- speaks admiringly of the Amazons. So Ulrich devotes a chapter to these figures of "fantasy, longing, inspiration, and fear." In it she examines the meaning of such "Amazons" as Penthesilea (who fought Achilles at Troy), the Chinese woman warrior Mulan, Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) and even Wafri Idris, the 28-year-old Palestinian who blew herself up in a Jerusalem shopping mall.

Another chapter, "Shakespeare's Daughters," springs from Virginia Woolf's heartbreaking fable about Judith Shakespeare. If the great playwright had had a comparably gifted sister, what might her life have been like? In Woolf's telling, Judith flees an arranged marriage and travels to London, where her writing is scorned and she is seduced by an actor. Left pregnant, the young woman destroys her manuscripts and in despair kills herself. From this starting point, Ulrich then looks at actual 17th-century poets such as Aemilia Lanyer and Elizabeth Cary, as well as at Shakespeare's daughters. Or rather, since we know little about their lives, she looks at their names. These recall two pivotal, if radically different, Biblical heroines: Susanna, who resisted the sexual blackmail of lecherous priests, and Judith, who coolly used her beauty to gain the tent of Holofernes, where she then cut off his head. Both stories, we are reminded, became the subject of important works by Artemesia Gentileschi, possibly because they allowed this esteemed Renaissance painter to portray (or sublimate) her own feelings after being raped by a fellow artist.

In "Slaves in the Attic," Ulrich looks at a quartet of forceful women named Harriet: the escaped slave Harriet Powell, who inspired Elizabeth Cady Stanton's youthful activism; the writer Harriet Jacobs (author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl); the "general" of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman; and, of course, the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. It's an ingenious organizing device, especially since many of these women actually did know each other. With a similar mixture of the serious and playful, a later section of Ulrich's book describes the longtime association between women and cows: Did you know that a red heifer symbolized the nourishing and spotless Jesus Christ? Ulrich even mentions Catherine O'Leary, whose cow kicked over a lantern and started the great Chicago fire -- "There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight." But Ulrich actually tells us about the life of O'Leary, who counted on that milk-giver to support a family.

In her remaining chapters, Ulrich offers a brief pr?cis of the modern women's movement, from the publication of Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique and the founding of the National Organization for Women to the contemporary Red Hat Society (a playgroup for women over 50), as well as her own experiences as an editor of the Mormon publication Exponent II. She points out, as others have, how much both the "first" feminist movement of the 19th century and the "second" of the 1960s and '70s grew out of female participation in movements for racial equality. Occasionally, activist men, in both eras, took up the struggle of their wives and sisters. As Frederick Douglass said: "When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people; but when I stood up for the rights of women, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act."

Some of Ulrich's anecdotes in these final pages will transport readers of a certain age back to the exhilarating days of activism and protest. She describes the Guerrilla Girls protesting the neglect of female painters with posters that demanded: "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?" She tells us about the genesis of such famous publications as Our Bodies, Ourselves, Sisterhood Is Powerful and "off our backs." Not for many decades had I thought about the once notorious women's group called WITCH, the letters standing for "Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell" or possibly "Women Inspired to Tell Their Collective History" or even "Women Interested in Toppling Consumer Holidays." As Ulrich says, back then "radicals liked to keep people guessing." She even quotes that devastating put-down from Virginia Woolf, read aloud to me by a female friend during that era: "Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size."

Despite her fervor and personal convictions, Ulrich never forgets that she is a scholar as well as a woman. She points out that a 1985 pocket calendar, The Medieval Woman: An Illuminated Book of Days, failed to recognize that many of its paintings from the Middle Ages weren't realistic but simply allegorical. She criticizes the images in the 2005 photographic album A Day in the Life of the American Woman for their saccharine optimism and refusal of the controversial or political: "There is very little if anything in this book about commitment to some larger community or cause." In the end, she even calls for a history that pays more attention to well-behaved women. "If well-behaved women seldom make history, it is not only because gender norms have constrained the range of female activity but because history hasn't been very good at capturing the lives of those whose contributions have been local and domestic."

Despite many virtues, Ulrich's book nonetheless often feels less like history than ancient history. A lot in its pages will be familiar to readers. Colleges have been offering courses in women's studies for decades now. That battle is won. Artemesia Gentileschi, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, Virginia Woolf -- these are hardly unfamiliar names. Do not, in other words, expect Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History to be anything but what it is: a well-written short work of synthesis and consolidation. It breaks no new ground.

Still, as Ulrich notes again and again, history isn't simply what happened in the past; it is what later generations choose to remember. And we do need to remember how it was. Ulrich quotes historian Sara Evans: "It is startling to realize that in the early 1960s married women could not borrow money in their own names, professional and graduate schools regularly imposed quotas of 5-10 percent or even less on the numbers of women they would admit, union contracts frequently had separate seniority lists for women and men, and sexual harassment did not exist as a legal concept. It was perfectly legal to pay women and men differently for exactly the same job."

Sometimes, we really do make a little progress -- even when there's still a long way to go. ?

Michael Dirda can be reached at mdirda@gmail.com.

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