Well behaved women seldom make history. In 1976 Pulitzer Prize winning American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote these now infamous words. You’ve probably seen this phrase more than a few times in the feminist universe, though likely uncredited. Ulrich (born in 1938) has contributed significantly to feminist academia through her study of the every day lives of early colonial American women.
Her book A Midwife’s Tale (1990) teases out the ins-and-outs of social life for white women in late 1700s New England, including how women sought autonomy through trade economies, had pre-marital sex, and navigated the legal system when men in power committed sexual assault. The text, directly based on the diaries of midwife Martha Ballard, adjusted our modern understanding of the active roles white women played in colonial Maine. Although she’s published several other texts, this might arguably be her most important.
(And -a callback to my personal roots- Ulrich taught at the University of New Hampshire from 1980-1995 & in case you didn’t know, I grew up in New Hampshire).
Funnily enough, Ulrich did not mean for her quote to be the call-to-misbehaving-arms it has morphed into. In fact, Ulrich, who studied the important labors of everyday women, was pointing to the fact that throughout American history, women have toiled to make a difference in daily life and their struggle is rarely if ever rewarded by being recorded in the history books. To that, I might add, we should consider *why* some women have not had the privilege of making a stir to the point of historical significance. Money, class, race - all factors of intersectional identity, play a role in the who’s-who of history-making. (Ulrich does address race in her 2007 book, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History.)
Ulrich’s own identity might make her a bit of an outlier for the modern feminist or scholar. A feminist and a Mormon, who published a book in 2017 extolling the complicated and empowering lives of women in plural marriages (one husband, multiple wives), Ulrich does not neatly fit into a comfortable box for some feminists.
I will admit, as a queer woman, the moment I see ‘mormon’ I feel the cringe start at the tips of my toes. We all have bias, subconscious or conscious, and the fact that the Church of Latter Day Saints is rife with homophobic beliefs and anti-queer religious leaders definitely pushes all my red-alert buttons. However, it’s important that as intersectional feminists we parse out the assumptions and structures at play between religious organizations and faith, patriarchal religious leaders and individuals. For instance, while it’s not hard to find examples of sexist, racist and homophobic acts of hate by Mormon religious leaders - the same can be said of *any* religious group. And, although as an atheist I find it challenging to fully understand faith based community, I do recognize that as soon as we write off any one group of people, we simultaneously say good riddance and good luck to the marginalized folx in that group, and also miss out on the important activists and thought leaders in that group working to create change.
A non-religious example of this relates to the new homophobic laws in Texas and Florida. When folx totally write off those states as backwards, not worth time/energy etc, we are saying that the queer people in those states are not of value; we are saying that every person living in those states is terrible and hateful, incapable of reason or change. That’s simply not true, and also leaves no room for discussion, activism and stalls out the fight against hate.
In her book Real Queer America: LGBT Stories From Red States, Samantha Allen takes us back to her Mormon life in extrememly mormon Utah pre and post transition. The entire book is about confronting our assumptions and recognizing the human capacity for change, as well as the strength of marginalized folx to create change even in the most desperate of environments. Our bias and assumptions tell us that queer folx in Red America face greater challenges, but Allen suggests that not only is this not always true, but also neo-liberal Blue States are not as welcoming or progressive as we assume.
I suspect these biases are just what Ulrich is trying to combat in her book, A House Full Of Females (2017) . And, maybe this discomfort & bias has played some role in the dissociation between her popular quote and her name. I can only speculate about that.
This confrontation and complication of our assumptions is exactly why I think Women’s History Month is still important. (Did you like that smooth transition there?) Here we are in 2022 at the dawn of another month dedicated to recognizing the important roles women have played throughout history, and frankly that history has gotten only more and more rich, messy and significant.
Our concept of gender is increasingly and delightfully complicating, and I would like to see a Gender Queer History Month to go alongside Women’s History Month – because gender queerness has always existed. It’s our society that has gone through periods of eradication and bigotry, not our identities.
Women’s stories still need to be dug into – especially those who have not been as widely researched and celebrated. Queer women, women of color, trans women, poor women – women’s contributions to the world have been buried in decades of male centric research and bravado. After all, it was only recently that anthropologists admitted that the gendered roles of hunters/gatherers were totally false. And, that means that our entire understanding of how prehistoric humans existed and evolved is based on a gendered lie, because perspective is everything. Imagine what other mistruths will be uncovered.
- Watch A Midwife’s Tale, PBS
- Read this Feministing Article on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
- Like the featured illustration? Check out the print :)
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Anne Lister was a privileged, wealthy white *lesbian* who lived during the Georgian Era of England. An example of how modern historians are doing important reconnoissance work, her life and lovers have only recently come to light and popular culture.