Slogan reaches out to the modern day woman

By Lindsay Christ
On March 8, 2007

The phrase "well behaved women seldom make history" has become a mantra for countless women's organizations and a symbol of many feminist movements. The University heard from the writer of this quote on Wednesday as part of the campus' celebration of Women's History Month.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a leading colonial historian, Harvard professor and author of several books and articles including "A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary," which won the Pulitzer Prize, came to talk about the use of her quote in today's society. Her upcoming book, "Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History," is coming out in October.

Ulrich started out the lecture by explaining where the quote came from. In 1976, she published an article about Puritan women based on their funeral sermons. She was interested in the everyday colonial woman's history and wanted to celebrate the women who had failed to attract attention in the past. She used the quote to support her case, but, after the article was published, she quickly forgot about it.

In 1995, journalist Kay Mills discovered the quote and used a modified form of it in her book "From Pocahontas to Power Suits: Everything You Need to Know about Women's History in America." Suddenly, Ulrich's quote was seen on T-shirts, bumpers sticker and Web sites. She started receiving an abundance of fan mail and discovered it had become the motto for numerous women's groups, including a nursing home's Wild Women's Group, and the Sweet Potato Queens, a group from Mississippi whose other slogan is "Never Wear Panties to a Party."

The key question asked in the hundreds of letters she received was, "What does this quote really mean?" Ulrich admitted that she does not really know the true meaning of her phrase, but said it seems to mean different things to different people.

Some women find it degrading and think that it implies immorality. But for most, it means not caring what other people think, and that any woman spunky enough to rise to the top of her job had to break the social norms that are expected of women. One woman painted the quote on top of the hood of her "she-mobile,"1991 Honda Civic that was also adorned with influential women's names on the sides.

Ulrich's said her favorite interpretation of her quote came from a college freshman in California. The student understood the quote to mean, "To make history, people need to do the unexpected," and used Rosa Parks as an example.

Ulrich said other meanings women have found in her quote taught her things, and is the reason she decided to write her new book. The new book differs from her previous published works in that it is not about colonial women.Ulrich ended the lecture with a brief question and answer period where she discussed Hillary Clinton, a chapter in her latest book about women soldiers and other topics of interest.

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