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Notes: A Lecture by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

These are my notes from a lecture given by Pulitzer prize winning author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich on September 19, 2007. This feisty gray haired lady presented a fascinating case for continued work in understanding the history of women, and in breaking down stereotypes. Phrases in quotes are direct quotes from the lecture.

�Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History�
A Lecture by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (Pulitzer prize winning author of A Midwife’s Tale)
Margaret Mitchell House and Museum Literature Center

See the webcast at

Books, Activism, Memory

– Read first few pages of Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History in order to define the phrase succinctly.
– Phrase comes from her first article in history in 1976 on Puritan Funeral Sermons
– Kay Mills found it, accidentally changed �seldom� to �rarely� hence two different quotes
– In 1996 Jill Portugal of one angry girl designs asked permission to print it on a t-shirt.
Kacey Jones sang a song incorporating the term on Garrison Keillor�s Prairie Home Companion � the song can be found in the book.
Sania Mirza, Indian Muslim tennis player has taken it as a slogan for herself

So what does �Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History� mean?

– Ulrich enjoys ambiguous titles for books
Good Wives is about normal women dealing with prescriptions for good behavior vs. actual behavior
Age of Homespun is about frontier violence and the intersection of Native Americans and the English
– Well behaved women are often characterized as Emily Dickinson types.
– Well behaved women are those who do what is appropriate for her culture and preserve the status quo
– �Well-behaved� is not referring to good or bad behavior (i.e. Rosa Parks was chosen as the example case against segregation precisely because she was well-behaved, yet she made history.)
Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History is about �celebrating the impact of the women�s movement of the 60�s and 70�s on knowledge.�
– �Because women tried to make history they discovered the past.�
– Those who want to make history seek to know history.
– �Caring about history we make history�

Book Structure

– Book is set up with three women in three libraries in different time periods and countries.
Christine di Pizan � 15th century �The City of Ladies�
– Elizabeth Cady Stanton � 19th century leader of women�s rights movement
Virginia Woolf � reference to famous British Museum doodle leading to the writing of fictional account Shakespeare�s sister Judith where in frustration at lack of success, raped and abandoned she kills herself.
– Woolf was wrong � Elizabeth Carey was forced to marry like Judith but was popular writer (more popular than Shakespeare) in the same time; Artemisia Judelefsky � raped, seduced like Judith, became famous artist
– Tells stories and shows parallels between the three women and retells their stories through the lens of the scholarship of the last 30 years.

A Renaissance in Women�s History

– Christine di Pizan loved the Amazons (800 year kingdom).
– Ulrich retold the story of the Amazons in light of recent scholarship including funny story about being sued by a women�s bookstore called Amazon for copyright infringement. Amazon tried to say they were named after the river rather than Amazon�s of myth. Ironically the river was named by a Spanish explorer who thought he had found the ancient kingdom found in the myths.
– Quilt documentation projects came to light.
– Ordinary people asked new questions
– �academic historians do not own history.�
– Well-behaved women don�t think their lives matter so they don�t preserve their own history by keeping diaries, etc.
– So being misbehaved means preserving ones role in history, no matter how small


Where are we in terms of male response to women?
– �I�m a historian� not a sociologist
– Ulrich is depressed when she goes into bookstores and only sees books on war
– The book marketing world thinks history is for men and fiction for women � a holdover of the 18th century
– �Our knowledge of history is not very deep, let alone women�s history.�

Was there someone in this new book that touched her like Martha Ballard of A Midwife�s Tale?
– not in new book, no one ever will
– new book is about many women rather than being a microcosm like A Midwife�s Tale.
– Ulrich was touched by the new book�s multiplicity
– Ulrich had to rely on other people�s scholarship
– Writing out of her comfort zone
– Moved by how much scholars and good citizens have done in research.
– Elizabeth Cady Stanton/Jarrett Smith and abolitionist helps Stanton meet a slave named Harriett Powell. Ulrich does research on the underground Railroad and ends up connecting two disparate organizations in New York and Canada who have information on this person.

If Ulrich were to be a history advisor to Hillary Clinton�s campaign what characterizations should Clinton avoid or identify with?

– Hillary has an interesting dilemma, she is both new and old, but is likely the first female presidential candidate who can make it.
– Should not identify with Woodhull � first woman to run for President in 1870�s
– Nearly 20% of the women who have served in Congress have succeeded husbands who died in office.
– Hillary Clinton is in peculiar position of being a pseudo-widow because she is potentially following a husband into office that is not dead. She will be both helped and hurt by his legacy, unlike the ones who follow dead husbands.
– The more interesting question is why it has taken so long to get to this point in the US when other developed nations have already elected women.

How has technology changed getting published?
– it is harder to get published
– her first book was her Doctoral Dissertation, and now he own publisher won�t even look at doctoral dissertations.
– �The Internet is fabulous and terrifying� but is helpful in making connections.
– She would like funding of digitization of primary sources not just go to the 19th century notion of history.

Would we be better off if women had been ruling the world for a while?
– �NO!� Emphatically
– She is a social historian, great things happen when lots of people make small changes, not rulers.
– Women are not always better peacemakers, that is a stereotype.
– See her chapter on the Amazons.
– Women have been warriors for as long as men have and have been just as violent.
– Gender is an important variable but it doesn�t explain everything.

Why are we reluctant to elect women?
– women themselves have a lot do with Nixon�s veto of childcare act.
– Can make the argument that 19th century women had more effect on moral culture and society than men did (child-rearing)
– Women have had economic and political power in the past, but it was directed toward the home rather than those spheres as we understand them.
– Women had a new politics, a moral imperative (more important than the others even)
– Conservative women destroyed the early feminist movements, not just men.
– Activist women disagree.

What was Ulrich�s impetus for becoming not well-behaved?
– committed to study
– marrying young and having a lot of kids
– history changed her life
– Grew up in Mormon Rocky Mtn. West, Idaho.
– Heard about noble pioneers from childhood and felt diminished by their story leading to questions and research.
– Some of those pioneer grandmother�s were not so well-behaved.
– Mormon�s were just as radical in the 19th century as the Elizabeth Cady Stantons, even though they were polygamists as well as feminists and suffragettes.
– Ulrich�s stereotypes were blown away.
– Being a pioneer was creatively dealing with the circumstances, as women who make history should be today.

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