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Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History
Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Knopf, 2007
320 pp., $24.00

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Elesha Coffman


Ain't Misbehavin'

Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich raises eyebrows, demurely.

Suggestive" is a slippery word, particularly dangerous when ladies are present. Nonetheless, I can think of no better term to describe Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's latest book, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. The cover sets the tone by running the title as a slogan on a woman's t-shirt. While the shirt is demure enough, reading the title requires the viewer to stare at the model's chest. A male colleague of mine hated the cover, for reasons he preferred not to articulate. I merely found it, well, suggestive. How should one read a feminist call to action emblazoned on the torso of a woman who, in the closely cropped photo, lacks face or hands? An eminent interpreter of visual texts, Ulrich—who presumably did not design the cover, but signed off on it—must have had a motive.

The title and visual presentation find ready explanation in the book's lengthy introduction, called "The Slogan." It turns out that the catchy phrase now adorning so many shirts, bumper stickers, and buttons was lifted from an article on Puritan funeral sermons Ulrich published in American Quarterly in spring 1976. Few people noticed the sentence in question until 1995, when it appeared in journalist Kay Mills' book From Pocahontas to Power Suits. Ulrich recounts the phrase's independent life, including the substitution of "rarely" for "seldom" and countless unlicensed commercial usages, the way a woman might describe the career of a willful daughter who never quite abandoned her mother's deepest values. Though Ulrich's aim in the article was to demonstrate that women could leave a mark on the world without being rowdy or rebellious, she has enough sympathy for naughty girls (past and present) to allow them expression in her own words.

Ulrich keeps a collection of catchphrase kitsch, but it is hard to imagine her sporting any of it. According to published profiles, she is quite well-behaved herself. A Mormon mother of five, she adapted the timing, location, and subject matter of her ...

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