“Accidental slogan” leads to study of women in history

A Pulitzer-prize winning Harvard historian and scholar from Idaho calls the title for her newest book the “accidental slogan.” This slogan, which Laurel Thatcher Ulrich says led to “accidental fame,” was published in the then-graduate student’s first scholarly article which appeared in “American Quarterly.” Since then, the words “Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History” has appeared on bumper stickers, magnets, posters and t-shirts — some even included a fuzzy black and white photo of her face (without permission, of course). On Thursday, Sept. 26, she told the packed Ferguson Music & Theatre hall, “Suddenly, it was absolutely everywhere.”

Curiosity over the sudden popularity of Ulrich’s words sent her digging through years of research. She looked at each word in the quote and focused on one question: “Why is the concept of misbehavior, and in part the misbehavior of women, so appealing?” The answer to her question was in the part of the quote that was focused on the least – history.

Ulrich dove deep into history’s feminist literature to see who these well-behaved women were. Christine de Pizan’s “Book of the City of Ladies,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Eighty Years and More” and Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” were her first sources, in which she examined those women who made a mark in history and those who didn’t.

She studied various types of women in various centuries: Through reading funeral sermons, she learned that ordinary women who were pious, well-behaved and quiet purposely tried to avoid making history. Ulrich said women who conform to their domestic role have no history because nothing changes. Those who behaved as warrior women, setting out to evoke change, start controversy or create a revolution, such as Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt and Queen Elizabeth I, made history not because they were ill-behaved, but because they did the unexpected.

And so they changed history, even if history didn’t do a very good job of capturing it. Women will continue to change history, said Ulrich. “History is the study of change over time. And the study of gender change over time,” she said. As long as there are well-behaved women who act in unexpected ways, there will continue to be progress in the world of women’s history.

Ulrich’s talk is part of the Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lectureship Program (OAH) and was hosted by CNU’s Department of History, the Program in Women’s and Gender Studies and the College of Arts and Humanities. Dr. Amanda Herbert, associate professor of history, along with Dr. Laura Puaca, also an assistant professor of history, wanted to bring Ulrich to Christopher Newport University to show students the significance of making a mark on history. “We really wanted students to think about how history is transmitted to the public,” said Herbert.

“[Ulrich] defined history as historians define it,” said sophomore history major Sam Foxhall. “[She] puts focus on redefining how we view gender roles of the past in the hands of people in the present.” From the women’s suffrage movement and the Red Hat Society to enslaved women in the Underground Railroad and the controversy of women soldiers, Ulrich illustrates the progress of women in history and the ways in which their actions are and will be embedded in historical ideologies.