Well behaved women seldom make history.

We've all heard this quote. Seen it on a bumper sticker. Retweeted it to emphasize a point.


Did you know? Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, PhD, coined the phrase in her 1976 scholarly work on seldom-examined Puritanical funeral services of pious women.


Did you know? Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was born in Sugar City, ID into an LDS family living in the shadow of the Tetons on the road to Yellowstone.


Did you know? Her point was not for women to act out to make history. Her point was that the quiet actions of everyday women are what bend the arc of history - and have consistently been overlooked.


Ulrich says that she intended to make a commentary on women's roles and work as well as historians and their narrow view of what's important to excavate and interrogate from history. After all the hoopla hit, she turned it into a book - Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History - as only a feminist historian could: examining the response to the phrase, women's history and how it was (and is) being written, and what it takes for women to make history.


"Good history is almost always dangerous. Good history is complex. It often stands in opposition to myth making," says Ulrich in a recent interview with Idaho Public Television. The potential for peril - for upending myths and perceptions - is evident in the paradigm shifts she herself has created through her scholarly commitment to recovering the lives of otherwise obscure women.


When asked what sparked her interest in history, Ulrich discusses her childhood in Eastern Idaho and the feeling that the pioneer era was still very close; she could feel it in what she talks about as the "male" and "female" stories of her grandparents. Her Grandpa Thatcher's stories were about things like trying to vote and having to run from the U.S. Marshals because there was a time in the West when Mormons were not allowed to vote. Her Grandma Thatcher's stories were about things like giving birth to 12 children as a homesteader. Ulrich herself recalls visiting all of the other "Grandmas" - the older women in their town - with her mother who had a particular affinity for the Grandmas and their stories. "I learned to respect age and the past and picked up a visceral sense of history," she says.


Tying all of this together - the storytelling, the feeling that history is proximate, her childhood affinity for the Grandmas, her commitment to elevating everyday women to their rightful place in history, her interest in the rhythms of daily life - is her catalogue of writing. A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary 1785 - 1812, Ulrich's Pulitzer Prize Winning book, serves as a great example of the historical insight to be gleaned from well-behaved women. She writes, "Martha's diary fills in the missing work - and trade - of women. It also provides additional detail on the day-to-day operation of the male economy ... We can learn far more from the world of war and politics from Martha's diary than we can about domestic life from [the accounts of men at the time]."


Ulrich cites Juanita Brooks as an inspiration. Juanita Brooks, she says, "Told the dark stories, the stories that were supposed to be forgotten."Ulrich says she reveres Brooks because of her historical work - she was a rare model of woman historian at a pivotal time for Ulrich - and also because Brooks confessed that, as a Mormon woman, she used her ironing board as camouflage: when the doorbell rang, she would hide her writing under the ironing.


For those who wonder whether feminism and Mormonism are incompatible, Ulrich says no. "Feminism is simply a belief in the equality of the sexes, and a willingness to challenge practices or attitudes that restrict opportunities for women or diminish their accomplishments." That, she says, speaks to the essential worth of each individual which is precisely what the church teaches. Rather than being incompatible, therefore, she finds them to be mutually reinforcing postures.


Likewise, she feels no cognitive dissonance in being a historian and a person of faith. "History," says Ulrich, "is a truth telling discipline."


Want more from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich?

From the Desk: 10 Questions with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

 

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