three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
32-Jan-Feb-2008
user_rating: 
0

A-Well Behaved WomenIn her latest work, Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich reclaims the famous saying she penned in a 1978 academic article and traces the paths of "misbehaving" women throughout history. Focusing on the lives and works of three women in particular-15th-century French poet Christine de Pizan, 19th-century American activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and 20th-century English novelist Virginia Woolf-Ulrich interweaves the experiences of countless other mythical, fictional, and real-life women. She explores and documents such diverse elements as the concept of women warriors, the daily drudgery of housework in a medieval home, and the parallels between slavery and the subjugation of the female. In each chapter, she demonstrates how brave women who are willing to stand up to society make progress.
Knopf. 320 pages. $24. ISBN: 1400041597

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Ulrich's new book is a work of selection and synthesis; she finds common archetypes in far-flung sources, making connections that are sometimes distant but never tenuous. ... Because Ulrich's extensive research allows her to make imaginative leaps, spanning centuries and continents, the reader accepts that she occasionally forces coherence onto unwieldy material, resorting to the overly careful formula of academic papers, rehearsing established connections before introducing new ones." Kathryn Harrison

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"She has an infectious enthusiasm for history and a powerful ability to convey it. Ulrich is a tremendous teacher, one who expresses herself clearly and beautifully (without a trace of jargon-larded academese), who weaves disparate stories into seamless wholes, who relates history and contemplates its uses and users with equal brilliance." Mark Dunkelman

Washington Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Ulrich writes with deep insight and humor about subjects that touch our daily lives, starting with housework. ... Ms. Ulrich does not hide the fact that she is and always has been a feminist, but whether she is discussing de Pizan's Amazons, one of the most delightful sections of the book, or Woolf's fictionalized story about Shakespeare's sister, common sense and fairness abound." Carol Herman

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ulrich's sweeping style runs a discomforting historical risk that the reader, not unlike Stanton herself, may lose sight of the very real differences that inescapably separate the heroines Ulrich surveys. Still, if anyone has the right-and the grace-to glide through these historical panoramas and find lost threads of connection, it is this author." Sharon Ullman

San Antonio Exp-News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"For some readers, the dense material might be aided by [Ulrich's] repetition of statements and redundant summaries. ... Like history, this book should not be passed up but passed along." Melissa Medore-Moore

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Don't worry: Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History is by no means jargon-ridden or academic in tone. ... Despite many virtues, Ulrich's book nonetheless often feels less like history than ancient history. A lot in its pages will be familiar to readers." Michael Dirda

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars
"At times, Ulrich is uneven drawing us into her professional passion. Her deconstruction of the religious and mythic symbolism in de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies is dull, but her explanation of how women's lives must be prised from the offhand details left in the records of men is engaging." Sharon Broussard

Critical Summary

Unlike her previous works, which focused on a single location, era, or life, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's fifth work of nonfiction takes a broad view of women's history. Though critics felt that her associations and organizing devices were clever, a few questioned some of the connections between stories. Critics also diverged over Ulrich's style: some found it dry and academic; others considered it clear and compelling. Ulrich, a pioneer in women's history in the 1970s and 1980s, continues to produce works that provide a fascinating peek into the past-into what a woman's life was, and might still be, were it not for these spirited pioneers whose stories deserve to be remembered.

Also by the Author

A Midwife's Tale The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (1990): Award Star Pulitzer Prize. This tale of an otherwise ordinary midwife and herbalist in rural 18th-century New England reveals with shocking detail the truth about daily life and medicine in the early years of the Republic.

Good Wives Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 (1982): In this thought-provoking book, Ulrich breathes new life into the forgotten lives of the "goodwives" of Colonial America-their beliefs and concerns, their hopes and fears, their pleasures and hardships, and their never-ending duty to church, home, husband, and children.