Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History

Last month I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Laurel Thatcher Ulrich at my association’s annual conference. She gave an incredible plenary address to the audience (full house) on her current research. I know I speak for so many of us when I say Ulrich is an icon for social history and women’s studies, and so meeting her and finally being able to hear her in person was incredible.

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Ulrich should need no introduction. That famous slogan “Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History” comes from a paper she published in 1976. The original phrasing was “seldom make history.” The die hards love her from her Pulitzer-prizing winning book A Midwife’s Tale, which recreates the life of post-colonial America through the diary of a Maine midwife, Martha Ballard. If you have not read it, do not simply put it on your reading list, put it at the top. Through her painstaking research of early American documents — marriage certificates, death certificates, house hold inventories — and combing through a woman’s diary that nobody else thought was worth it, Ulrich brings to life the people and time of early America in a way few historians had done before her.

If you’ve ever wondered about the description of Chick History – a place to come together and (re)learn about all the cool things chicks have done that, like the dishes, otherwise might go unnoticed – it is an homage to Ulrich and her work. Ulrich has made a career out of looking for history in places rarely visited before the 1980s — diaries, court records, newspapers articles beyond the front page, quilts, needlework, household economies, etc. — and demonstrating how that history relates to a broader dialogue. How well-behaved women do make history, we’ve just been looking in the wrong places.

In her talk at the AASLH conference, Ulrich spoke about her current research for her forthcoming book A House Full of Females: Faith and Families in Nineteenth-Century Mormon Diaries. The work she’s shared so far, and where she is going with the book, is amazing. In true Ulrich style, she’s uncovered a world of feminism, political unrest, polygamy, religious refugees, and marital strife, all wrapped up in the world of early American Mormons, and all uncovered by researching women’s history and the things we left behind.

I encourage everyone to listen to this 2007 interview of Ulrich on Meet the Author. Inspired by the pop sensation of the slogan, she published the self-referential Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, another great book on history and how history is made. In the interview she talks about the book, her findings, and her own take on the slogan that is more famous than she is. There is also an American Experience: A Midwife’s Tale that is worth checking out too, in addition to all her books!
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