In 1976, graduate student Ulrich asserted in an obscure scholarly article that well-behaved women seldom make history. But Ulrich, now at Harvard, made history, winning the Pulitzer and the Bancroft Prizes for A Midwife's Tale—and her slogan did, too: it began popping up on T-shirts, greeting cards and buttons. Why the appeal, Ulrich wondered? And what makes a woman qualify as well-behaved or rebellious? Several chapters of this accessible and beautifully written study are brilliant. In one, Ulrich follows the lead of Virginia Woolf (who invented an ill-fated fictional sister of Shakespeare) by digging into what we know—and don't know—about the women in the Bard's family. In another, she offers a piercing analysis of four 19th-century Harriets—ex-slaves Tubman, Jacobs and Powell, and novelist Stowe—to uncover the interplay of race and gender in questions of liberation. And in a third, richly illustrated chapter, she utilizes a medieval book of days as a window into women's labor through the ages. If other chapters, such as a wide-ranging exploration of the Amazon myth and a rumination on second-wave feminism, don't cohere as tightly or showcase Ulrich's strengths as an extraordinary interpreter of ordinary records, this can be forgiven in a work that is so often sharp and insightful.
Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History