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Well-Behaved Women?

Harvard Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich Lectures on March 5

By David Foster '10
Posted March 6, 2008
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While working on her first scholarly article as a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich never expected that an article about puritan funeral services would immortalize her on tee-shirts and bumper stickers. The Harvard historian, who lectured at Hamilton on March 5, was exploring a neglected group of quiet and well-behaved puritans who were ignored in favor of more sensational topics such as witches. Yet in describing the servants' humdrum rituals, Ulrich famously quipped, "Well-behaved women seldom make history." Although the phrase was intended to focus attention on the dutiful puritans, Ulrich reports that her phrase has since been used in an opposite sense that implores women to break out of the mold and challenge authority. 

In her recent book Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, Ulrich explores the relationship between women and history. As she tells it, traditionally "considerate meant deferential, and respectful meant obedient…. No one likes a know-it-all." She explains that a dichotomy shapes our examination of women in history: either they are benevolent caregivers who nurture children, or they are trying to appear masculine by speaking up and misbehaving. Those women who misbehave are considered "Amazon women," she tells, adding that historical figures such as Joan of Arc have been so-labeled. Yet even the Amazon woman is duplicitous: "If the Amazon's on my side, she's great. If she's on your side, she's slime," Ulrich added. 

Ulrich explained that the split between allegedly "well-behaved" and "mischievous" women is apparent in today's politics. She told the stories of two Iraq war veterans: Jessica Lynch, a supply expert who was the sole survivor of an Iraqi attack on her jeep; and Lynddie England, a perpetrator of torture upon detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. While Lynch was considered a nurturing and caring woman, England was viewed as a renegade who flaunted societal expectations of women. 

Ulrich also commented on America's presidential race. She explained that there is a long tradition in history of women standing in for a man when needed, and in fact there is a longstanding tradition within American politics of widows replacing their husbands in Congress. Yet she noted that Hillary Clinton represented something of a break from this tradition: "The thing is, her husband is alive." 

-- by David Foster '10

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