Harvard history professor speaks on her newest book

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich tells students about a book whose title quickly spread

May 1, 2008

The Knox College Phi Beta Kappa chapter’s visiting scholar program brought author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich last Tuesday to speak about her newest book, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, and the phrase that has created something of a phenomenon.

Ulrich started her lecture by laying out the original context of the quote “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” explaining that in 1976, American Quarterly published her first scholarly piece, an article titled “Virtuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735.” The last sentence of the introduction to this article about puritan funeral sermons was the phrase that can now be seen on everything from t-shirts to magnets.

Ulrich said that around 1995, author Kay Mills was working on writing a book called From Pocahontas to Power Suites: Everything You Need to Know About Women’s History in America, when she happened upon Ulrich’s earlier essay and used the “well-behaved women” quote as an “epigraph for her own book.” Mills altered the wording of the quote slightly, from “seldom make history” to “rarely make history,” attributed it to Ulrich, and helped start a sensation.

“My accidental slogan keeps company with all sorts of people,” Ulrich said, noting that the internet helped its popularity spread enormously. She said she gets fan mail weekly from people who tell her what the phrase means to them.

The phrase’s ambiguity, Ulrich said, has helped contribute to its popularity by allowing it to mean different things to different people. She said it was originally intended to mean something more like “good girls get no credit,” saying that it was supposed to be ironic and aimed at other historians, but the statement has come to mean things like “bad girls have more fun” to other people.

“We don’t control the meanings of what we write and say,” Ulrich said.

About her book Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, Ulrich said that it was “not an attempt to define good behavior or misbehavior” since the “meaning of behavior changes over time.”

She said the book was more focused on what it means to make history.

Ulrich talked in detail about how people make history. She said there are three things that must happen if a person wants to enter the history books: they must do something unexpected, their actions must produce records, and their actions must resonate with future generations. She made it clear that if there is no source recording an action, there is no history of that action, and that is why well-behaved women seldom make history: they leave few records. Ulrich said the solution to this problem is “learning how to use records differently and using different records” when it comes to writing history.

Ulrich is the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University with a concentration on Early American History. She has published numerous articles and books. Her book A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for History, as well as many other awards. It was also developed into a PBS documentary for the series “The American Experience.”

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