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November 12, 2004

"Well-behaved women seldom make history"

by Lindsay C. Hilton A'03, Media Relations Specialist

photo by Ann Hermes, A'05

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (right) talks to a student and Assistant Professor of History Sarah Gualtieri prior to her discussion, "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History," on October 22. Ulrich gave a run-down of women who are famous or infamous because they went against the grain or did things deemed unbecoming, or even inappropriate, for women.

The Loyola community turned out in large numbers to hear what Laurel Thatcher Ulrich had to say about misbehaving women. Ulrich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University, delved into the implications of the phrase she coined in the 1970s. "Well-behaved women seldom make history" has become a universal slogan for independent women across the globe. These words can be seen on bumper stickers, coffee mugs, pens, buttons, and T-shirts. So what does it mean to Ulrich to be well-behaved? How does the rest of the world interpret these words? "If you want to make a difference in the world, you can't worry too much about what other people think," said Ulrich. What do people see when they envision this slogan? What does it mean "to make history?" Ulrich explored the principles which are attached to misbehaving women.

Ulrich asked the question, "Are empowered women wild women? No, that's an old idea." She began reciting an old nursery rhyme about the little girl who, when she was bad, was very bad. After the first two or so lines, Ulrich trailed off, but the audience picked up the rhyme and carried it to its finish. Ulrich warned that we run the risk of dichotomizing women of history "into bores and renegades who are going out there to save the world." It becomes a conflict of representation. "We need to take some responsibility for the past and how we think about who might be our heroes, our icons." She pointed out how interesting it is that in each generation, history is written according to how it is perceived, according to what the public wants or needs.

Ulrich used Joan of Arc as an example. Over the course of time, Joan of Arc was deemed a transvestite, then a witch, a whore, and then a saint, she said. Joan of Arc inspired rebellion. She is now an icon of Catholic conservatism. "My goal is not to lament these women in their oppression," Ulrich contended, "but to give them history. Serious history gets beyond good and bad. Some history is intentional. Much of history is accidental."

Ulrich catalogued women who applied to her axiom of accidental history. Rosa Parks broke the law because she dared to challenge social norms. There were many other women who refused to go to the back of the bus during the Civil Rights Movement. Mae West had a reputation as a misbehaved woman, associated with sex, scandal, and theatre. She was also voted Woman of the Year by UCLA students. "West gave the middle-class audiences a glimpse of worlds that both repelled and fascinated," Ulrich said. Some misbehavior is celebrated, some is not. Contemporary culture defines the boundaries, and it is all very complex. But, as Ulrich told the audience, "It's the job of historians to take something simple and make it complex."

Ulrich is currently working on another book, the title of which is also her now famous slogan.

The event was sponsored by the Biever Guest Lecture Series, the Department of History, and the Women's Resource Center.