In an article published in 1976, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich began with the line, "Well-behaved women seldom make history." This soon became a popular slogan found on T-shirts, buttons and coffee mugs.
She had originally used the statement in a discussion regarding sermons written to praise well-behaved Puritan women during the colonial era. However, this catchy declaration would quickly take on a life of its own. Controversy erupted over whether it was a proud, feminist motto or a reprimand toward scandalously behaved women.
Decades later, Ulrich provides both an explanation and a compilation of stories about some of the most courageous, outrageous and generally ill-behaved women in history in "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History."
Stories ranging from medieval times to recent history celebrate women who pushed the social limits of their time. Agnes Bowker found herself unmarried and pregnant, but instead of suffering the shame of a morally criminal act, Bowker concocted a story that caused a sensation and took the eye of censure off her actions. "On the sixteenth day of January 1569 she was delivered, not of a child, but of a strange creature that looked for all the world like a skinless, shriveled cat. Her midwife pronounced it a monster." The story was told by the midwife and confirmed by attendants. When the authorities were called, Bowker spun a "dark and wondrous story." The community became divided over the scandal of the decade, rather than unified in the condemnation of yet another unwed mother. While celebrity scientists were invited into the town to research the monstrosity, Bowker was able to slip out of the spotlight.
Not all the stories in "Well-Behaved Women" are as sensational as Bowker's, but each tale demonstrates strength. In the 1600s, artistic child prodigy Artemisia Gentilieschi would stand firm when surrounded by a court of men who believed women were guilty until proven innocent.
From Amazons to Shakespeare's daughters, Ulrich finds the anecdotes and stories that would have been lost to history if not for women who refused to behave as society deemed appropriate. Asking the reader to question previously held beliefs, Ulrich attempts to engage historical narrative in a new way. "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History" is a captivating tribute to spirit, women and history.
Mariah Luebbering is a children and reference clerk at Missouri River Regional Library.