boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

Rebels, writers, and milkmaids

How women - famous and nameless - changed the world

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History
By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Knopf, 284 pp., illustrated, $24

When Laurel Thatcher Ulrich published "A Midwife's Tale" in 1991, the quiet revolution taking place in the academy went fully public. Discovering the history of women and entering it into the stories we tell ourselves about the past had been the focus of intense agitation by feminist activists since the late 1960s. By the mid-1970s, a rising number of women were entering history PhD programs for the first time in a generation. Many began to research, write, and almost literally force open the historical doors.

Ulrich was one of those pioneers. Many more followed in their wake. History departments changed, course curricula expanded, and the study of history itself altered forever. Yet, based on the bestseller lists, one might think history was simply a series of battles and be unaware that something else was afoot in universities across the country. Then came "A Midwife's Tale." With this beautifully written excavation of a decidedly average woman's daily life in Colonial America, Ulrich produced not only a Pulitzer and Bancroft Prize-winning volume, but also a bestseller that enchanted a popular audience thrilled to read about women's lives in the distant American past.

Her new book, "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History," carries a familiar title. You've probably seen it on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and coffee mugs. In the 1990s, it became a feminist slogan, used to exhort women to be . . . well, less polite. But it was Ulrich who actually wrote that phrase in a 1976 essay, and her meaning was somewhat different. She wasn't urging women to take to the streets; instead she was calling on herself - and other historians - to look more closely at those women who did not. Yet the phrase took on a life of its own, one Ulrich bemusedly documents in the opening chapter of this engaging exploration into the implications of her now-famous remark.

Ulrich notes: "History is a conversation and sometimes a shouting match between present and past, though often the voices we most want to hear are barely audible." It is this interplay, so gracefully rendered in that sentence, which most engages the author. Ulrich's objective is "neither to prove nor to disprove the claims of my slogan, but to show the intersection of present and past in the making of history."

To do so, she organizes the stories of famous women across time and space. For example, a chapter on the power of the written word links Christine de Pizan, the 15th-century French poet and scholar; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a 19th-century American suffrage activist; and Virginia Woolf, the 20th-century English author, to see how each "talked back to books" and revealed to their generations that "a female perspective changed presumably universal notions of human behavior." Similarly, a discussion of "Amazons" incorporates women warriors from classic Greek tales to Wonder Woman as well as female soldiers in Iraq.

This is, in many ways, a charming approach that helps pull readers unfamiliar with women's history into a broad, accessible, and generous conversation. Probably the most evocative chapter, "A Book of Days" is framed by "The Medieval Woman: An Illuminated Book of Days." Ulrich uses this collection of medieval images of anonymous women doing daily tasks as the jumping-off point to address the power of "ordinary" women's activity in remaking the world. Unsurprisingly, given her own exceptional history in revealing the significance of the supposedly mundane, Ulrich is brilliant here. Just to give you a sample, she opens one section with the complex religious significance of a 13th-century image of a woman milking a red heifer, then moves to the role of cows in 17th-century witchcraft trials; the milking concerns of her subject, midwife Martha Ballard; Mrs. O'Leary's mythical cow; and the role of cows in a women's tax-resistance movement in 1870s Connecticut. It's a bravura performance. The entire chapter is equally lovely and genuinely moving.

Not all these linkages are quite as well integrated. I found myself a bit unsettled by "Slaves in the Attic." Ulrich attempts to counter the perception that 19th-century white women who fought against slavery used abolition merely as a stepping-stone to their own liberation struggles - antislavery as a way station to the suffrage movement. She weaves a tapestry of heartfelt ideological and personal ties between white and black women who resisted slavery. Yet there is only so far one can go with this. Ulrich quotes suffrage activist Stanton's claim to herself be a slave. Ulrich rightly calls this "nonsensical," yet also argues that the language was in other ways "well chosen" and a sign of "ultimate misbehavior" because Stanton identified with slave "degradation." Perhaps. Or perhaps she identified with well-worn contemporary slogans - even the Founding Brothers had felt free to whine about their "slave" status, after all. Ulrich's sweeping style runs a discomforting historical risk that the reader, not unlike Stanton herself, may lose sight of the very real differences that inescapably separate the heroines Ulrich surveys.

Still, if anyone has the right - and the grace - to glide through these historical panoramas and find lost threads of connection, it is this author. Few have done as much to so profoundly enrich and enlarge our vision of the past. Ulrich closes by writing: "Well-behaved women make history when they do the unexpected . . . and when later generations care." Here, Ulrich uses all her considerable narrative and analytic powers to ask us to care once again.

Sharon Ullman is an associate professor of history at Bryn Mawr College and author of "Sex Seen: The Emergence of Modern Sexuality in America."

More from Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES