Ulrich Embraces Historical Dialogue

Cristina V. Fernandez

It’s not every day that hand-quilters in Idaho share a maxim with a group known for its slogan “Never Wear Panties to a Party.” Or that the maxim traces its origin to an article published in an academic journal.

But such is the unusual history of a phrase described by 300th Anniversary University Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in a discussion of her most recent book, “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History,” at the Harvard Book Store on Tuesday night. In the book, the titular one-liner-cum-maxim serves as a focal point for what Ulrich describes as the “renaissance in historical scholarship that began with the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s” and changing definitions of what it means for a woman to “make history.”


Ulrich, whose book “A Midwife’s Tale” was awarded the 1991 Pulitzer Prize in History, said that for a long time she had forgotten the offhand remark about “well-behaved women.” She penned it in her very first academic publication, a 1976 journal article that appeared in “American Quarterly,” while she was still in graduate school. The article argued that the emphasis on written documents in traditional historical scholarship led Puritan women to be remembered only by eulogistic sermons which obscured their individuality, and she criticized the tendency of historians to neglect those who are not the movers and shakers of history.

“Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history,” she wrote.

Twenty years later, she received an e-mail from a young woman who had found the phrase “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History” attributed to Ulrich in a book of quotations by women and wanted permission to print it on a shirt.

“I couldn’t even remember saying it,” Ulrich said at the Book Store event. “I had to look it up, and I thought it was really amusing, and I said, ‘Go ahead, just send me a ‘T-shirt!’ And she did. And she sent lots of other people T-shirts too.”


Pretty soon, the phrase was culturally disseminated, worn by self-styled salt-of-the-earth types and casual feminists alike. Ulrich drew laughter from the audience when she described her method of keeping tabs on “Well-Behaved Women” merchandise.

“Every once in awhile I get brave and I Google, just to see where it’s shown up next,” she said. “On one occasion…the T-shirts with the quote on them not only T-shirts with the quote on them not only had my name attached to the quote, they had a picture of me standing at a lectern. And it might not have been so bad, but it was a really bad picture. I e-mailed them and said, ‘Why are you selling my picture without permission?’ And they responded, ‘I guess we’re not very well-behaved girls.’”

This lighthearted anecdote served as a segue into reflections on the nature of historical scholarship.

“I’m a teacher, and this was kind of like a teaching moment, as they say. And so I began thinking about the fascination of all of the different meaning attached to the slogan,” she said.

Ulrich attributes the popularity of her phrase to its ambiguity when unmoored from its original context. Some take it to mean “good girls get no credit.” Others see it as saying “bad girls have more fun.” But the appeal of misbehavior can also have to do with reading against the grain.


While Ulrich’s book encompasses everyone from Amazons to abolitionists, it returns again and again to the texts of three prominent writers in women’s history—Christine de Pizan, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Virginia Woolf—to drive home her view that history is a dialogue between present and past.

“As I like to tell my students, history is not the moldy old facts. We create history out of the sources that survive from the past,” she said. “These three women tried to rewrite history and their inspiration came, as they tell us, by sitting in a library and becoming depressed and vowing to do something about it.”

Ulrich suggests that an expansion of what counts as historical evidence over the last 30 years has enabled a refocusing of concern on how individuals acted in what she terms “the theatre of ordinary life.”

Indeed, asked by an audience member to name her favorite personality from the book, Ulrich started by saying that she loves them all before quickly appending: “I have to confess that even after writing this book, and even after recognizing that I really do have an interest in movers and shakers, warriors and all the rest, my heart is really with the craft makers, the basketmakers, the weavers.

“My heart is with the anonymous women,” she said. “I guess I haven’t changed a lot since I wrote that first article.”

­—Staff writer Alison S. Cohn can be reached at