“Well-behaved women rarely make history.” This quote has always been compelling to me. As a fervent feminist, I have always interpreted this to mean that in our society, women need to stand out in order to be heard. I am by no means one to make a ruckus or to be in the center of attention, and I certainly never misbehave, but I’d like to think that I can make history as well. So, I loved reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich‘s preface in which she explains the origins of this phrase and how the now iconic quote has taken on a life of its own.
Ulrich explains that the phrase came from a scholarly essay that she penned in 1976 about the funeral sermons of women, and it was written as an aside. Years later, the quote has shown up on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and tote bags, and it has become the motto for a strong feminist movement. The slogan takes on a different meaning for everyone who says it. For some groups, it is a rallying cry, for others it is a reminder of a slow and steady march, and for others still, it is a license to have fun. To Ulrich, the quote examines how women who break the mold are remembered by history while those who are more conventional fade. This idea sets up the rest of Ulrich’s book focusing on three women from three distinct time-periods who acted in unconventional ways and recorded or shaped history.
The bulk of the book explores the work of Christine de Pizan, a 15th Century Frenchwoman who wrote “City of Ladies” – a book of women biographies; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 19th century suffragist; and Virginia Woolf, 20th century writer. Ulrich explores how history influences the work of these three women and how they, in turn, each made history. She chooses a turning point in each woman’s life that helped them further their work in their respective fields.
Though the book often jumped from time period to time period, it was an in depth look at how these three ordinary women did something unconventional and made history. This further’s Ulrich’s point about woman’s history as a whole. Going back to the titular quote, Ulrich explains that the slogan originally depicted the dearth of information about women in history. Historically, women who were relegated to domestic roles did not do thing that were chronicled. Yet, all of these women have a history that shaped their communities. Ulrich’s goal was to point historians to examining at the history of these “ordinary” women to uncover the hidden history of ordinary people.
While this book was not as quick of a read as the other, fiction books I’ve read this month, I found Ulrich’s writing to be compelling, and I found the histories told to be worthwhile and important. I highly recommend this wonderful account of women’s history.