Author of ‘accidental slogan’ ponders role of women in history

Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard University history professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich coined the slogan, “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History,” in a 1976 essay about the women of colonial New England. The now-ubiquitous saying is on T-shirts, buttons, and coffee mugs. In her book of the same name, Ulrich has produced a well-researched, wide-ranging account of what it means to make history as a woman.

Question: Do people, particularly women, have to “misbehave” to be remembered in history?

Answer: I guess what I’m trying to do with this book is break down the good/bad dichotomy that obscures the complexity of women’s contributions to history. As I try to show in the introduction, the same woman can be “good” and “bad” depending on how her life is read. Although I include women in this book who attracted public attention (even scandal), I try to indicate the complexity of their actions (and the representation of those actions) over time. I would like people to go away appreciating the irony underlying my “accidental slogan” and the multifaceted implications of making history.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on 15th-century writer Christine de Pizan, 19th-century suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and author Virginia Woolf?

A: I chose Christine, Stanton and Woolf because they present significant but contrasting ideas about what it means to “make history,” and because of the fascinating coincidence of those three scenes in libraries. For each woman, dismay over representations of women in books sent them on a quest to change things.

Q: I was intrigued by your idea about Massachusetts picture-researcher Sally Fox, who created a book of images that “invite us to attend to the symbolic as well as the practical implications of women’s work” and that “ask us to think about continuity as well as change.” Could you elaborate?

A: In one section of that chapter I write about a medieval illumination that pictures a woman milking a cow. The work portrayed is amazingly persistent over time as “women’s work,” but the symbolic meanings of that work changed radically. In one century female control of milking conjure up visions of black magic, in another innocent love or not-so-innocent seduction — and so on through time.

One could do the same sort of analysis with lots of forms of “women’s work” — take nursing, for instance, or preparing food, or (something I’ve already written about at length) making cloth.

Q: I was amused about your essay that referred to the short piece you submitted to Seventeen magazine that was revised by an editor, and that made me wonder what your relationship has been with the editors in your life.

A: Since that crazy experience with Seventeen, I’ve been fortunate not to have editors change my words without my approval. Sometimes I have argued with editors’ suggestions, but mostly I am grateful for their helping me see where I may not have been as clear as I needed to be. I encourage my students to treasure criticism rather than be offended by it. I tell them: “Readers are ALWAYS right even when they are wrong.” In other words, you need to listen to what people tell you because it lets you know how somebody else has understood your writing.

If they failed to “get it,” that is probably as much your fault as theirs and it gives you an incentive to be clearer.

Q: What was the research process for this book?

A: Unlike my other books, this was a book researched mostly in libraries. It depends upon — and celebrates — the scholarship of hundreds of other historians. The framing stories of Christine, Stanton and Woolf gave me a way to limit what could have been an impossibly broad project. By designing chapters as responses to their work, I was able to contain what I wrote.

Q: You said once that “it’s threatening” to you to be celebrated. Is it still?

A: Everybody likes praise. I do too, but I’d sooner be understood than celebrated. I relish conversations with readers — and with other writers.

Q: What’s the DoHistory Web site about?

A: DoHistory was developed by the team who made the documentary film based on my book, “A Midwife’s Tale.” I can praise it because I had very little to do with it. I love the fact that Martha Ballard’s diary is now online and can be word-searched, and I am absolutely dazzled by the historian, Judith Moyer, who figured out how to make so many of those word searches work despite Ballard’s erratic spelling.

Q: What is Exponent II, which you helped establish?

A: Exponent II is a quarterly newspaper begun in the 1970s by Mormon feminists in the greater Boston area. It is still being published — though recently switched from hard-copy to the Internet. It specializes in first-person essays. Exponent also sponsors a blog and an annual retreat in the woods of New Hampshire. I think it is representative of the many women’s organizations that grew out of the feminist movements of the 1970s. Many disappeared, but those that survive often nurture long-lasting friendships.