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Book Review: Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Don’t judge a book by its cover, they say, but can one reliably judge by the title?  This book will either be about why good, respectable women have not made it into our history books, or why women who step out of character do make it into our history books.  Or, if the reader is lucky, both.    Choice C it is!

Ulrich’s prologue is titled “The Slogan,” and tells how this phrase began in Ulrich’s opening paragraph of a study of Puritan funeral services of well-behaved women – which is likely the first time those quiet women made history. Journalist Kay Mils used in in her 1995 informal history of American women. By 1996, it was on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and coffee mugs.   The slogan is popular with everyone from quilters to newspaper reporters to musicians.

Rosa Parks was a woman who made history – was she well behaved? According to the narrative surrounding her story, she was ‘just tired’ and didn’t want to stand up for someone else. How many people knew she was the secretary for her local NAACP? That she and her husband had worked toward social justice for years?   Suddenly, “just tired” means more than aching feet. What about other people arrested for failing to move to the back of the bus? They weren’t made poster children for the rebellion because they were not, in fact, well behaved. A drunkard is not a face people rally behind. An unwed mother didn’t motivate people to shoulder protest posters. But a morally clean, reliable women with the courage of her convictions? Bingo. A well behaved woman, Rosa Parks became the face of history.

At Rosa’s death in 2005, eulogies were full of praise for the “humble seamstress, the simple woman” whose feet were tired. Ignored were her years of political activeness. Columnist Ellen Goodman wondered why Americans assumed that woman must be “accidental heroines”, instead of people who chose their own actions.

Chapter One looks at three writers, Christine de Pizan of France c. 1400, Elizabeth Cady of New York c.1825, and Virginia Wolf of London 1928. (Yeah, white Eurocentric, but the scope expands soon.)

Christine was in despair, because every single book of morals attack women.   She prayed for an answer, and had a vision. Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice would help her build a city where the fame (reputation) of women would stand against all assailants. Christine then discovered the lizes of worthy women – queens, princesses, warriors, poets, inventors, weavers, prophets, saints. In 1405, Christine wrote The City of Women, and people wondered: was she less a woman for being a scholar? Or less a scholar for being a woman? Annoyingly, this question still stands. In 1418, civil war split France

[Book Rec Here]

*** Civil war between Burgundy and Armagnac.  Why do those names seem so familiar to me?  Ah, I heard of them in Margaret Frazer’s wonderful Dame Frevisse mystery series!  Hello, real-life history and historic fiction, so nice to meet you both! ***

and Christine took refuge in a covenant -   a real-life city of women.   For 10 years raged, and “all the kings horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put… together again.” Then came one young woman, hearing voices: Joan of Arc did more than the armies – she ended the war and put the prince on the throne.

Elizabeth’s five brothers all died young, and her father wishes she had been a boy. She studied Greek, Latin, and math at the local academy, and won first prize. When she proudly shows her prize to her father – he sighs, I wish you had been a boy. Widows come to lawyer-dad for help, but he can’t help them – the law allows husbands to pass over their wives in favor of their sons. Other law allows men to sell their wives’ property and the Bible, too, puts men at the head of the family. Elizabeth, whose grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War, declares that women have the same lack of representation under the law that the colonies had rebelled against, therefore female revolution is only sensible.   In 1851, she joined up with Susan B. Anthony to campaign for women’s property rights. The Seneca Falls Convention seems to be the culmination of he dream, and the beginning of a new era in history.

Virginia Wolf wondered why so many women were poor. The question expanded to fifty questions, and no one could answer, but the professors who wrote about women had the same anger and hatred Christine de Pizan saw in her books of morals. Then she wondered – with colleges and most jobs closed to women, how can they become educated, how can they earn more than the barest living? If William Shakespeare had a sister Judith, as good a playwright as himself, would she have been allowed the education to right plays, would she have been allowed to act, and would she have been allowed to direct plays that she wrote? No, no, and no. Her own times were no better.

Chapter 2 – Amazons.

These warrior women stopped Alexander the Great, conquer of the known world. In 1588, Queen Elizabeth rallied the troops and referred to herself as an Amazon. When Shakespeare called Joan of Arc an Amazon, it wasn’t a compliment. Spanish explorers thought they saw warrior women, and called the river Amazon.

Were there really amazons? There were certainly warrior women – scientists (once all male) once assumed any skeleton buried with a sword must be male, but now skeletons are DNA typed, and a surprising percentage of warriors were female. Indeed, tales of the crusades include three Frankish women thought to be men until they were captured. Indeed, woman fought in all wars, all revolutions, even if they had to hide their gender from their own side. In 1996, the Kuwati military academy turned out female peacekeeping troops. In the 1800s, about half the Dahomey army was female – and made up its most elite force. The Chinese hero Mulan’s story changed many times before Disney put it to music.

The rest of the book continues to range over history and geography. Women were often invisible to historians, but law-books keep their own sort of history. Some women broke the law and others brought suit when the law was broken against them. It looks at property laws, rape cases, and the fathers of unlawful babies – including the suit a serving girl brought against her boss.

Chapter 4 covers the slave trade and its particular effects on women of color. Elizabeth Stanton makes a return appearance as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and declares that women are little better off than slaves, for they are made to be dependent on others. She preferred to give up the privilege of deference due to fine ladies, and to have instead the rights and privileges of a citizen of the United States. Runaway slaves hid in attics, in sheds, anywhere to hide from their masters. If they could board or stow away on a ship to Canada, they could find freedom in the north.

Chapter 5 – Anon has no name, but maybe she has a face? With a second wave of feminism in the 1970s, people looked for images of women doing non-traditional work, i.e. non housework. (Finding pictures took longer before the internet grew.) “The Medieval Woman: an Illuminated Book of Days” was published in 1985 by Sally Fox.    There were female silver miners salt miners, coal miners. Women were blacksmiths, surgeons, sheriffs. Martha Bollard was a midwife who kept a diary for decades, and gives us a window into Anon’s daily life. Catherine O’Leary’s cow and the great Chicago fire. Quilts are shown to be works of art, not just ‘something grandma put together in her spare time.’ French women’s role in the March to Versailles for bread spearheaded the revolution, though they were only simple women who wanted to feed their children. Women in the temperance movement were also ‘good women’ who enlarged their traditional roles, bringing their knitting into saloons so men would be ashamed to drink in front of them.

The last chapter of the book discusses various waves of feminism, where it came from, and where it might be going.

ETA:  Blue Thread, by Ruth T Feldman, uses this slogan on the Dedication page!  I didn't know that when I picked up both books at the same time :)

Tags: author last name: t-z, book rec, book review, genre: non-fiction
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