From admired historian--and coiner of one of feminism's most popular slogans--Laurel Thatcher Ulrich comes an exploration of what it means for women to make history.
In 1976, in an obscure scholarly article, Ulrich wrote, "Well behaved women seldom make history." Today these words appear on t-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, greeting cards, and all sorts of Web sites and blogs. Ulrich explains how that happened and what it means by looking back at women of the past who challenged the way history was written. She ranges from the fifteenth-century writer Christine de Pizan, who wrote The Book of the City of Ladies, to the twentieth century's Virginia Woolf, author of A Room of One's Own. Ulrich updates their attempts to reimagine female possibilities and looks at the women who didn't try to make history but did. And she concludes by showing how the 1970s activists who created "second-wave feminism" also created a renaissance in the study of history.
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September 23, 2008
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Excerpt from Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Chapter One: Three Writers
Here are the stories of three women making history. One was a poet and scholar attached to a French court, another was an American activist, the third an English novelist. None was a historian in the conventional sense, but all three were determined to give women a history. The settings in which they worked were radically different. The problems they faced were surprisingly--disturbingly--the same.
For each, a moment of illumination came through an encounter with an odious book.
Paris, France, c. 1400
Christine de Pizan sat in her study. Weary of serious reading, she opened a satire someone had given her for safekeeping. She knew better than to take its diatribes against women seriously, yet somehow its arguments disturbed her. Even the sight of the book made her wonder why so many learned men had "devilish and wicked thoughts about women." She took more volumes from their shelves. Men's opinions spilled out like a gushing fountain, filling her with doubt. "I could hardly find a book on morals where, even before I had read it in its entirety, I did not find several chapters or certain selections attacking women, no matter who the author was." She began to think God had made a vile creature when he created woman.
In her despair she began to pray, asking why she could not have been born male. As she sat with her head bowed, tears streaming from her eyes, she discerned a beam of light falling on her lap just as a ray of sun might have done if it had been the right hour of the day. Looking up from her shadowed corner, Christine beheld a vision: standing before her were three radiant women. Terrified, she made the sign of the cross.
The first woman spoke. "Dear daughter, do not be afraid, for we have not come here to harm or trouble you, but to console you." Identifying herself as Lady Reason, the specter held up to Christine the mirror of self-knowledge. "Come back to yourself, recover your senses, and do not trouble yourself any more over such absurdities." She told Christine that she and her companions, Lady Rectitude and Lady Justice, had come to help her build a city in which the fame of good women would endure against all assailants. Together they would restore the reputations of those unjustly accused.
Guided by her three visitors, Christine went back to books and discovered the lives of worthy women--queens, princesses, warriors, poets, inventors, weavers of tapestries, wives, mothers, sibyls, and saints. From their stories, she would build a city fit for the Queen of Heaven.
Johnstown, New York, c. 1825
Elizabeth Cady sat quietly in her father's law office listening to the complaints of his widowed clients. Absorbing their tales of woe, she wondered why her father couldn't do more to help them. When she asked him, Daniel Cady took a lawbook from its shelf and showed her the "inexorable statutes" that gave husbands the right to pass over their wives in favor of their sons. Married women, he explained, were civilly dead. Amused by Elizabeth's distress, the law students in Cady's office joined in the exercise, reading her "the worst laws they could find." One teased her by saying that if she should grow up to become his wife, her new coral necklace and bracelets should be his. "I could take them and lock them up, and you could never wear them except with my permission. I could even exchange them for a box of cigars, and you could watch them evaporate in smoke."
Elizabeth puzzled over the power of her father's books. When he wasn't looking, she began to mark the offending statutes with pencil, planning "when alone in the office, to cut every one of them out of the books." Fortunately, she confided her secret to a housekeeper, who alerted her father. Without letting her know that he had discovered her secret, he explained how laws were made, telling her that even if his entire library were to burn, it would make no difference, because there were other books and other libraries. "When you are grown up, and able to prepare a speech," said he, "you must go down to Albany and talk to the legislators; tell them all you have seen in this office . . . and, if you can persuade them to pass new laws, the old ones will be a dead letter."
Elizabeth vowed to do just that. When she grew up she would not only go down to Albany but journey across the Atlantic and throughout the United States in defense of women's rights.
London, England, 1928
Virginia Woolf, or one of her fictional personae ("call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please"), sat in the domed reading room of the British Museum, surrounded by books. She had returned from giving a lecture at Cambridge with her head full of questions. "Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?" Surely the cached wisdom of a great library would provide answers. Surrounded by books, she lifted her pencil and prepared to begin, but no sooner had she written WOMEN AND POVERTY in block letters on a page of her notebook, than the enormity of her task confronted her.
The more notes she took, the more confused she became. "Professors, schoolmasters, sociologists, clergymen, novelists, essayists, journalists, men who had no qualification save that they were not women, chased my simple and single question--Why are women poor?--until it became fifty questions; until the fifty questions leapt frantically into mid-stream and were carried away." Pausing in her labors, she began to doodle. Before she knew it, she had drawn a figure she called "Professor von X, engaged in writing his monumental work entitled The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex." The Professor was not a man attractive to women. "He was heavily built; he had a great jowl; to balance that he had very small eyes; he was very red in the face." Where had this phantom come from? Alas, from the morning's reading. Somewhere in that pile of books was a statement that had aroused a demon. That was hardly surprising. No woman likes to be told she is "naturally the inferior of a little man." Woolf looked at the unshaven student next to her and "began drawing cart-wheels and circles over the angry professor's face till he looked like a burning bush or flaming comet--anyhow, an apparition without human semblance or significance. The professor was nothing now but a faggot burning on the top of Hampstead Heath."
She returned the books to the center desk, and went to lunch. She had failed in her quest, but she had stumbled on anger--not just her own, but the anger of professors who liked to write about women. Why was it, she asked, that those who ruled the world felt the need to diminish women? Was anger, she wondered, "the familiar, the attendant sprite on power?"
Little matter. For the moment at least, she had banished the Professor. With money and a room of her own, she would write her own books.
Three Writers Making History
In each of these stories, a studious female discovers male disdain for women, and that discovery leads to a new mission. Christine de Pizan's story appears in the opening pages of her Book of the City of Ladies, a sophisticated allegory that remains, six centuries later, an accessible and provocative collection of female biographies. Elizabeth Cady Stanton told her story in Chapter II of Eighty Years and More, an autobiographical account of her fifty-year fight for women's suffrage. Virginia Woolf's vignette appears in A Room of One's Own, a semifictional essay that began as a pair of lectures given at the women's colleges at Cambridge University in 1928.