‘Well-Behaved’ Scholar Shares History With Mary Baldwin

February 5, 2008

A seemingly innocuous line from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s first scholarly article — about funeral sermons for early New England women — remained just that for nearly two decades. Then, she says, it “escaped into popular culture.”

Things have not been quite the same since.

The cover of Dr. Ulrich's latest book about her famous sloganIn 1995, as Ulrich explains in her latest book that takes its title from her 30-year-old academic observation, her phrase was picked up by writer Kay Mills in her book, From Pocahontas to Power Suits: Everything You Need to Know About Women’s History in America. Today, her clever quip, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” is a favorite for bumper stickers, mugs, T-shirts, and countless other products; it has become a call to action for feminist thought around the country.

The phrase’s rise to popularity — and virtual synonymy with “girl power” — is also the focus of Ulrich’s upcoming visit to Mary Baldwin University as the 2008 Phi Beta Kappa Scholar. A fifth-generation Mormon and now gray-haired grandmother, Ulrich has something to say about how her famous line has been trivialized. Her objective was to “give unremembered and unremarkable women a history, not to make a political statement,” Ulrich said in a 2006 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian will be on campus February 13–15 to speak in classes and give a public talk at 8 p.m. February 14 in Francis Auditorium.

One of a handful of professors at Harvard University who have earned distinguished status, Ulrich earned her doctorate from University of New Hampshire while raising five children. Ulrich’s path to Ivy League employment was unusual, particularly when viewed in the context of today’s highly competitive job market. She serves as a role model for women working to combine an academic career with a family and she often tells female audiences “you have the right to be a whole woman,” said The Chronicle.

“I don’t think most people realize that women have not been silent participants in the past,” Ulrich said in response to questions about her visit to Mary Baldwin. “I want my audience and readers to understand their own potential for ‘making history.’”

Ulrich earned a Pulitzer for her bookA Midwife’s Talein 1991, and has authored several other books about early American life, particularly the lives of women in that period.Good Wivesis a study of 16th- and 17th-century New England women,The Age of Homespunexplores the impact of cloth production on women’s lives in early America, andYards and Gates: Gender in Harvard and Radcliffe Historydispells rumors about Harvard’s “womanless” past. She is president-elect of the American Historical Association and a member of the American Philosophical Society.

“The common thread is a search for the little known and the unexpected. For me, history is detective work. As I have tried to show, there is plenty of drama in almost any life,” she said.

Ulrich, who considers herself a generally well-behaved woman, has indeed made history. And don’t confuse her history with the story of her ubiquitous phase.

The Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar Program makes available each year distinguished scholars who visit colleges and universities with chapters of Phi Beta Kappa. The Visiting Scholar Program has sent 542 Scholars on 4,552 two-day visits since it was established in 1956. Founded in 1776, Phi Beta Kappa is the nation’s oldest academic honor society.