Did Laurel Thatcher Ulrich sell out?

How an obscure academic article yielded marketing gold.

Today Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was interviewed on the Diane Rehm Show. The interview was occasioned by the publication of Ulrich’s new book, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. The title originated as a throw-away line in an article from early in Ulrich’s career, and its rise to popular celebrity reads like Cinderella-in-the-stacks: the sentence languished for many years in the dark mists of the academic library, until it was picked up as an epigraph for a volume of popular women’s history; it was then included in a collection of quotations, and finally recognized for its marketing potential and reproduced, with all the faux-transgressive frisson of feminist samizdat, on t-shirts, bumper-stickers, and probably underwear.

I happened to tune in to the interview this morning on NPR as I was cleaning my bathrooms. (See: well-behaved woman.) (See also: irony.) Accomplished, unpretentious, gracious, and articulate, Ulrich gamely fielded breathless fan-girl softballs and serious historical inquiries. I’m not qualified to comment on the quality of her historiography, but her thoughtful performance on the show leaves me no reason to doubt the accolades heaped on her scholarship. (I do take issue with her assertion, repeated several times this morning, that the definition of “bad behavior” is entirely contingent on time and place: chastity has always been the defining virtue for women, and probably always will be, for Darwinian reasons. But this was a relatively small quibble.) Her current book, while not a scholarly offering, sounds like an intelligent popular introduction to women’s history and to the political, personal and practical challenges in recovering and interpreting the written records of women’s lives.

But I admit, I’m bugged that Ulrich has allowed her phrase to become an instrument of marketing, and I’m even a little disturbed at the apparent sang froid with which she views the particular ideological uses to which it has been put. The sentence began as a perceptive comment on history, historiography and bibliography. But it has been denatured into a glib catchphrase selling the cheapest kind of lazy-minded permissiveness as empowering progress. Down with lazy-minded permissiveness masquerading as empowering progress! I understand that Ulrich may not necessarily endorse all the travels of her phrase in the wide world (but why then would she allow a photograph of the slogan on a t-shirt as the cover art to her new book?), and perhaps she deserves a little easy attention as she nears the end of what has been by all accounts an exemplary career. But I wish she’d seemed, you know, just a little bit conflicted or ambivalent about it all. Inner conflict and ambivalence, as everyone knows, are the fastest way for women to make history. (See: gentle self-mockery.)

70 comments for “Did Laurel Thatcher Ulrich sell out?

  1. November 15, 2007 at 6:29 pm

    I haven’t read her book, but I skimmed through the intro at my local Barnes & Noble a couple months ago; it’s probably worth reading before you take issue with her allowing her phrase to become an instrument of marketing. IIRC, she gives a fairly lengthy explanation of how the phrase took on a life of its own, generally without her permission, becoming bumper stickers and t-shirts and more, oh my. She even mentions a grad student who contacted her to find out to where she could cite it, because her thesis (again, IIRC) committee, she felt, wouldn’t be really eager to have a footnote to a t-shirt (or bumper sticker).

    Again, I only skimmed, and it’s been a fair amount of time, but I think she’s been through all of the conflictedness, etc., about the use, ubiquity, and celebrity caused by her creation of a phrase (which, again and for the third time, IIRC, is actually just off of what she actually wrote), but her book was going to flesh it out anyway.

  2. Rosalynde Welch
    November 15, 2007 at 6:36 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Sam. You’re right: the original phrase was “well-behaved women SELDOM make history,” the popularized version usually substitutes “rarely” for “seldom.” The title of her book accurately quotes the original phrase.

    This post is about the interview, not about the book itself. Ulrich reprised the long journey of the phrase in her interview this morning, and I’m pretty confident that I’ve summarized what she said accurately. She explicitly mentioned giving permission to a young woman named Ms. Portugal to print the phrase on t-shirts. I’m sure she has indeed lost control of the phrase since then, but one can’t help but read the cover art of her book as an endorsement of its popularization.

  3. November 15, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    As for the interview, I can’t say (I discovered when I lived in Virginia that I can’t listen to Diane Rehm, which is unfortunate, given that NPR was the only station worth listening to, and she was often on while I was driving). And I make no guarantee that my summary of her introduction is at all accurate. But it was my impression from her intro that she had lost control over the phrase (i.e., it was being used freely without her permission) long before she gave anyone permission to use it. I got the impression that the cover’s feature of the t-shirt was demonstrative of how far into popular culture the phrase/idea had permeated.

    Of course, I can’t, at this point, remember what the point of the book is, whether it is analyzing well-behaved women not making history or analyzing the popularity of the idea that they rarely make history.

    In any event, I didn’t see the cover as being super problematic. But I’ve never read her stuff (other than the intro), and it’s kind of cool that an academic can cash in on (even a lazy) public phenomenon, IMHO.

  4. November 15, 2007 at 7:13 pm

    All I can say is that I can only aspire to following in her shoes. Who cares if it was 1) a throw away line 2) people abuse it and 3) she capitalized on it? It is still compelling.

  5. Julie M. Smith
    November 15, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    “But it has been denatured into a glib catchphrase selling the cheapest kind of lazy-minded permissiveness as empowering progress.”

    You got all that from a t-shirt? Must have been a really immodestly cut one.

    Seriously, though, I think you need to read at least the introduction before you take on her (mis)use of the phrase. I know you said above that you were responding to the radio interviews, but having (just barely) survived my own radio debut recently, I’m now extremely hesitant to judge anyone’s thoughts on what she squeezed into the ten seconds before the commercial when I can read what she has written.

    As for the rest of the book: the reason it is wonderful is that it doesn’t settle for a dull march through history. It proceeds topically and the transitions are so unassuming that you’re half-way into the second story before you realize that the first is finished. Those familiar with women’s history won’t be floored by the content, but the presentation is fun and the writing is solid.

  6. Timer
    November 15, 2007 at 9:12 pm

    “The sentence began as a perceptive comment on history, historiography and bibliography. But it has been denatured into a glib catchphrase selling the cheapest kind of lazy-minded permissiveness as empowering progress.”

    Wait a minute. Are you absolutely sure it wasn’t a glib catchphrase from the beginning?

    If you had asked Ulrich, a day after she penned thosed words, “Did you mean this to be a glib catchphrase or a perceptive comment on history, historiography and bibliography?” what would she have said?

  7. Edje
    November 15, 2007 at 9:37 pm

    Last week I attended a lecture by Dr. Ulrich at Rice University in which she discussed the book. She spent a significant portion (15-20 minutes out of about an hour) of the talk discussing the story of the phrase. (Compare the brief mentions at minutes 7, 36, and 48 [approximately] in the interview).

    In the Rice talk she gave several examples ways in which the phrase has been used and abused, some of which she liked, some of which she did not. I do not know Dr. Ulrich personally, so am not qualified to evaluate correlations between her public expression and private feelings, but my impression from her talk was that she does “see[m], you know, just a little bit conflicted or ambivalent about it all.”

    One of the examples was a website that was using both the phrase and Dr. Ulrich’s picture without permission. Dr. Ulrich sent an email protesting the usage. The response was something like, “I guess we’re not very well-behaved women.” Based on her change in intonation and facial expression as she recounted the event I’d say that Dr. Ulrich “seemed” not only ambivalent and conflicted but also angry and hurt about this “cheapest kind of lazy-minded permissiveness.”

  8. Edje
    November 15, 2007 at 10:02 pm

    Timer (6): “Are you absolutely sure it wasn’t a glib catchphrase from the beginning? If you had asked Ulrich, a day after she penned thosed words, “Did you mean this to be a glib catchphrase or a perceptive comment on history, historiography and bibliography?” what would she have said?”

    At the Rice lecture Dr. Ulrich explained the original intent as precisely a comment on history, historiography, and bibliography. I read a piece by her some years ago with the same explanation. Within the original article the same idea is rephrased in less T-shirt-phillic ways (e.g., the exhortative “Zion’s daughters have for too long been hidden” [p. 40] or the more expositive “A patient examination of this seemingly static and formulaic material reveals nuances in ministerial thought of considerable interest, demonstrating that for women’s history, as for so many aspects of social history, the real drama is often in the humdrum” [p. 22]).

    So yes, we are sure that’s what she meant from the beginning.

    For overkill… the original sentence and its neighbors:
    Cotton Mather called them ‘the hidden ones.’ They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question God or the magistrates. They prayed secretly, read the Bible through at least once a
    year, and went to hear the minister preach even when it snowed. Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history; against Antinomians and witches, these pious matrons have had little chance at all. Most historians, considering the domestic by definition irrelevant, have
    simply assumed the pervasiveness of similar attitudes in the seventeenth century. Others, noting the apologetic tone of Anne Bradstreet and the banishment of Anne Hutchinson, have been satisfied that New England society, while it valued marriage and allowed women limited participation in economic affairs, discouraged their interest in either poetry or theology.”
    —“Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735,” _American Quarterly_ 28, no. 1 (Spring, 1976): 20-40.

  9. paula
    November 15, 2007 at 10:21 pm

    “sell out” seems to imply that she’s making money off this stuff herself. It didn’t sound that way at all to me, when I read the book. (And I’d also like to cast a vote for actually reading a book before discussing it.)

  10. Timer
    November 15, 2007 at 11:03 pm


    Thanks for the context. That makes it pretty clear.

  11. Lupita
    November 15, 2007 at 11:16 pm

    Did she sell out? Not in the least. Dr. Ulrich is a fabulous historian and writer (I only wish I had the pleasure of knowing her personally so I could add ‘friend’ to the list–after reading some of her essays, it’s hard not to dream). Maybe I would have more of an issue with her comment being co-opted if I didn’t agree with it and its historical accuracy. The travesty is that she likely isn’t getting any residuals from the t-shirts, etc. I’d love to see a historian get a piece of the pop culture pie!

    As far as “perhaps she deserves a little easy attention as she nears the end of what has been by all accounts an exemplary career”, this seems quite unfair. Academics, particularly faithful female academics, are unsung heroes imo and frankly, merit all the attention that comes their way. Pulitzer-prize winning authors especially :) (Personal bias alert–Her _A Midwife’s Tale_ rocked my world in grad school so I’ve been a longtime fan…)

  12. Edje
    November 15, 2007 at 11:35 pm

    Rosalynde Welch (2): ” I’m sure she has indeed lost control of the phrase since then, but one can’t help but read the cover art of her book as an endorsement of its popularization.”

    I agree that the cover art implies endorsement of some sort, but I think it’s more “buying in” than “selling out.” By claiming the slogan and contending publicly for her preferred interpretations she can do good in a wider sphere. “Co-opting” her own phrase for the book title will probably lead more folks to read the book than might otherwise have–or at least encounter the book’s ideas–which I think is a good thing, regardless of who gets the royalties or media attention.

    Also: my impression is that part of Dr. Ulrich’s reason for teaching us history is to inspire us to live better–to make necessary changes, to remember our fellows more thoroughly, to draw strength from our forebears, and all that stuff that learning history can do. You portray “a little easy attention” as a desert at the “end of what has been by all accounts an exemplary career”; we might also portray that attention and its inevitable misuses as the price of national influence.

    Timer (10)– You are quite welcome.

  13. Rosalynde Welch
    November 16, 2007 at 1:27 am

    “You got all that from a t-shirt? Must have been a really immodestly cut one.”

    That sounds like a Guy Noir sketch: “A tall blond walked into the bar. Her shirt was so tight, I could read the feminist manifesto printed on her underwire push-up bra.”

  14. Rosalynde Welch
    November 16, 2007 at 1:40 am

    All, I know it’s a little… school-marmish to cavil at this. That’s what the self-deprecation was about in the post. The interview left me with the impression that Ulrich is a lovely person and a fine historian, the sort of role model to whom I will gratefully direct my daughters’ attention. But I don’t know that her academic work makes her any sort of moral hero (any more than mine makes of me, or anybody else), or that she deserves any particular reward beyond professional recognition, which is what some of you seem to be suggesting above.

    And y’all have convinced me that she’s not seeking it. In fact, I never really thought she was. But I do think she missed a prime opportunity in her interview today to raise the level of feminist discourse, as they say, beyond right-on empowerment to a more nuanced discussion of women’s strategic relationships to authority, traditional social structures, and history. She had plenty of opportunity in the high-profile interview she did today to voice her discomfort with the more unsubtle work to which her words have been put, but she chose not to address that. I think that’s too bad.

  15. Rosalynde Welch
    November 16, 2007 at 1:41 am

    Edje, many thanks for reproducing the original quote in situ.

  16. truebluethru\'n\'thru
    November 16, 2007 at 2:24 am

    Ironically Ulrich didn’t engage here in a certain type of conflict* as Rosalynde would have hoped. Which is ironic ’cause it is conflict that makes history.
    *a post-modern feminists’ campaign for individualism versus a “nuanced discussion of women’s strategic relationships to authority, traditional social structures, and history”?

  17. November 16, 2007 at 3:32 am

    I agree with Julie that it’s not really fair to judge such nuance by a radio interview, it’s a really difficult medium. She may have had the “opportunity”, but there are so many pressures, so many subtle nuances she might wish to convey as Julie put it “in the ten seconds before the commercial”. (my local NPR doesn’t get Diane Rehm either so I missed it.) You really should read the book, as it has been mentioned, the nuances are there.

    As to the t-shirt on the cover, I don’t see that as selling out so much it being the whole point, isn’t it? A visual embodiment (snort) of the popularly of that quote, followed by a nuanced approach to both it’s popularity and meaning.

  18. Julie M. Smith
    November 16, 2007 at 10:27 am

    Rosalynde, the reason for my admiration of LTU is this: she followed her husband to New Hampshire, raised five kids, then worked on her PhD and research, had to slow things down for a late-in-life child and a stint of seminary teaching, but stuck it out and precisely because she found merit and interest in an ordinary woman’s life (NB: Martha Ballard’s diary wasn’t lost–people knew about it all along–it’s just that no one thought it was worth using until LTU worked her magic on it.) and she earned pretty much every accolade that one can in her field. So I think (from an LDS perspective) there very much is a moral dimension to her success. There is also a ray of hope for those of us up to our elbows in diapers and wondering if what Pres. Faust taught about “having it all–just not all at once” is really possible. For LTU, it was.

    Also, for those of you are Rehm-less, you can listen at http://www.wamu.org.

  19. ECS
    November 16, 2007 at 11:11 am

    As a fan of Ricky Gervais and the second season of “Extras”, catchphrases can be a compelling way to communicate a simple message to the masses. As others have noted, however, boiling down complicated feminist theories into a pithy catchphrase was not necessarily Professor Ulrich’s intent, but I think her statement provides a nice springboard for further discussion.

    Funnily enough, one of my non-LDS students came into my office a few months ago wearing a t-shirt with this slogan printed on it. I wonder how many active LDS women are familiar with Professor Ulrich’s personal history and Pulitzer Prize winning work. One consquence of the male-only leadership in the Church is that prominent women are less visible in the Church than are prominent men (who are likely to be called to high profile leadership positions). As Julie points out, Professor Ulrich is an excellent example of a faithful LDS woman who successfully nurtured her family and developed her talents as a writer and researcher. She’s also wonderfully down to earth and an active participant in the gospel – not at all a stuffy feminist academic.

  20. Rosalynde Welch
    November 16, 2007 at 11:44 am

    I’m clearly swimming against the tide on this one; oh well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been wrong. (There’s always the slim chance that I’m the visionary truth-teller; a girl can dream!) But indulge me and my tight-lipped stodginess for a moment.

    I really don’t understand the argument that I shouldn’t comment on a radio interview, because it’s a difficult medium of communication. Painting is a difficult medium, general conference talks are a difficult medium, does that mean nobody should evaluate them? Of course not. LTU gave an hour-long interview (no commercials) on a high-profile, nationally-broadcast public radio show. I’m very comfortable commenting on her rhetorical choices in that format. And that’s what I’m doing here, nothing more (aside from larding on praise for her other work).

    Also, Julie, the impression I got yesterday was that Ulrich would be the FIRST to vigorously disclaim the idea that she’s a moral hero for her work, let alone her work-life choices. I’ve often thought of her story with wonder, awe and sometimes a little despair (I’m pretty confident that having it all in the way that she has is not in the picture for me). A lot of native smarts and hard work, and a measure of luck, and she’s achieved great success. Her particular route to the top will not be reproducible for most women, but that doesn’t mean that she can’t serve as inspiration for serious-minded effort. She can and I hope she will. But I’m really wary of the notion of academic work as uniquely valuable or heroic, and I have a feeling Ulrich would be, too.

    About the t-shirt, I really do have a problem with that. A mug or a keychain, eh, whatever, okay. But a t-shirt, with the slogan printed to draw the eye to the breasts, and given the “genre”—in which provocative phrases on tight clingy fabric are the norm—and a culture in which “girls gone wild” doesn’t mean marching on the capital for suffrage, there’s a sexual connotation imported into the phrase “well-behaved women” when it’s worn on a t-shirt.

  21. November 16, 2007 at 12:16 pm

    Nothing substantive to say other than that I love this phrase:

    “the faux-transgressive frisson of feminist samizdat”

    One marvels at the patiently accumulated erudition behind the labeling of such a category.

  22. Adam Greenwood
    November 16, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    Down with lazy-minded permissiveness masquerading as empowering progress!


  23. Kaimi Wenger
    November 16, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    Goodness. Will no one defend the lazy-minded? (I would say something in their defense myself, but I’d really rather go take a nap.)

  24. Julie M. Smith
    November 16, 2007 at 12:32 pm

    Rosalynde, of course most people (women people or men people) won’t end up with Pulitzers and jobs at Harvard. But it’s good to know that it is possible for an LDS mom of a large brood who stays at home with them when they are young to do so. So when I don’t achieve such heights, I know that it is my fault and that I’m not the victim of a system.

    As for the heroic value of academic work, that’s a topic for another post. But I do think that if any kind of academic work can lay claim to that title, it would be work that achieves academic *and* popular success *and* redefines many people’s notions of what history can/should be.

  25. Julie M. Smith
    November 16, 2007 at 12:34 pm

    One other thought: I’m sensing, RW, that your issue is with slogan t-shirts in general. Nice of Frank to print yours with the words below the bosoms, no?

  26. ECS
    November 16, 2007 at 1:08 pm

    I don’t understand why you’re criticizing Prof. Ulrich. Because she didn’t denounce the alleged association of the Girls Gone Wild culture with t-shirts printed with her statement, “Well-behaved Women Seldom/Rarely Make History”? If you’ve seen the woman wearing the t-shirt on the cover of her book, you’ll notice there IS no connection. Your comments imply that Prof. Ulrich personally solicited Pamela Anderson lookalike models to parade around wearing tight t-shirts and flash everyone. You may be joking around, but I find your comments disrespectful.

  27. Jane Marshall Hicks
    November 16, 2007 at 1:12 pm

    Seeing the quote in context really makes a difference. I had seen the bumper sticker before and thought it was a kind of call for women to misbehave in order to make history. In the original, it seems that wasn’t her point at all.

  28. Mark IV
    November 16, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    If we saw Pres. Kimball’s slogan “Do it!” on a t-shirt or bumper sticker, it would be cringeworthy, and I think that is all that Rosalynde is saying here. I see no disrespect towards LTU at all.

    At least half the people I know who think they are feminists also think their commitment to the movement begins and ends with “acting up” or “being feisty”. Surely, that is not what Ulrich intended.

  29. a random John
    November 16, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    I’d suggest that “Misbehaving women seldom make history” is an equally true statement. This due to the fact that it is extremely rare for anyone to make history.

  30. Matt Evans
    November 16, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    “Well-behaved men seldom make history” is also true. Quick, name Lee Harvey Oswald’s electrician brother. The leader of Germany in 1930? First CEO of Enron? Police officer who captured Ted Bundy?

    The stupidity of the statement as rallying cry stems from its accepting “making history” as a noble aspiration.

  31. Rosalynde Welch
    November 16, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    Totally awesome, Frank. Next up: across the rear of a pair of sweatpants.

    ECS, hi, how are you? It’s always nice to have you around. Why am I criticizing Pr. Ulrich? As it happens, I’m spending most of my time praising her! But I am disappointed that in her interview she chose not to address the limitations—-she covered the advantages pretty well—of allowing a vocabulary of transgression to dominate popular feminist discussion. She had a fine opportunity to do so, but chose not to, and I think that’s too bad.

    My criticisms of the t-shirts were not directed toward her; as I’ve said, I realize that she is not responsible or able fully to control how the phrase is used. If my comments must find a human object, I suppose it would be the designers and wearers of the articles, some of whom are probably simply misguided and some undoubtedly cynical. Perhaps it was an error of judgment on Ulrich’s part in to allow that first t-shirt, and to reproduce it on the cover of her book, but if these criticisms are implied, they are mild.

  32. Kaimi Wenger
    November 16, 2007 at 3:52 pm


    That’s both right and wrong, isn’t it?

    Yes, well-behaved men are also unlikely to make history, because really, very few people make history.

    At the same time, though, there’s a difference of degreee in the seldomness, isn’t there? After all, there are a significant number of well-behaved men — men who conformed exactly to society’s expectations for men — who have made history.

    Take a look at your significant male historical figures. Yes, they consist of people who took chances, made important discoveries, had important characteristics, and so on. At the same time, they tend to be people who accepted the societal standards for male success and conformed to that. Someone like Meriwether Lewis is a good example — smart, ambituous, figured out the rules for men, did a good job. Lewis was a well-behaved man, and he certainly made history. If he was a woman, we would never have heard of him.

    Differences of degree in seldomness matter, don’t they? I may have two cookies, one of them safe, and the other one tainted by a few miligrams of arsenic. I could correctly say of each, “there is very little arsenic in this cookie.” But, it would be misleading to equate the two.

  33. Kaimi Wenger
    November 16, 2007 at 4:03 pm


    I appreciate your point, but I think I’m with ECS and Julie here.

    It sounds to me like you wish that Ulrich had said something like this Slate review. You’ll notice, though, that the review cites Ulrich herself repeatedly, making just the points you seem to be arguing here.

    I agree that there are problems with a “well behaved women seldom make history” that is unmoored from any sort of context, and your argument against that kind of interpretation is certainly reasonable. But as Julie and others have noted, Ulrich herself has repeatedly made the same argument.

    I can’t say why it didn’t appear in the radio interview — perhaps it was an oversight, or perhaps it was cut out for reasons of time. Or perhaps, to give your suspicions the most possible support, perhaps Ulrich herself is pitching the line to the lazy, over the radio, without noting all of the caveats she lays out in her book. (But then, why would she do a thing like that?)

    But your ultimate complaint that Ulrich isn’t conflicted or ambivalent enough seems undercut by the evidence elsewhere of exactly those kinds of feelings.

  34. Frank McIntyre
    November 16, 2007 at 4:19 pm

    “Meriwether Lewis is a good example ”


  35. Rosalynde Welch
    November 16, 2007 at 4:22 pm

    “But your ultimate complaint that Ulrich isn’t conflicted or ambivalent enough seems undercut by the evidence elsewhere of exactly those kinds of feelings.”

    Then it seems that I’ve finally persuaded her to see things my way. (grin!)

  36. Matt Evans
    November 16, 2007 at 4:25 pm

    Kaimi, I agree that men have been and still are more socialized toward endeavors that bring notoriety. Men outnumber women among inventors, generals, presidents, despots, assassins, serial killers and spouse-killing ex-football player accused-kidnapper celebrities.

  37. Kaimi Wenger
    November 16, 2007 at 4:31 pm


    As is, Lewis-and-Clark . . .

  38. Eric Russell
    November 16, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    And yet it was the well-behaved Sacagawea who made the dollar coin.

  39. ECS
    November 16, 2007 at 4:37 pm

    Mark IV – One person’s “acting up” is another person’s advocacy. It’s all a matter of perspective, I guess.

    Rosalynde – I get that you didn’t enjoy the radio interview, but it’s absurd to call into question Prof. Ulrich’s judgment as if she tacitly encouraged the exploitation of the female body to sell her product. Nice to see you around, too. We really should meet in person one of these days.

  40. Frank McIntyre
    November 16, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    Yeah, I know, but as Eric pointed out, Lewis may well not be the most recognized person from that expedition.

    Or at least, Lewis was completely overshadowed in that Ben Stiller movie…

  41. Janet
    November 16, 2007 at 5:34 pm

    Ros–I’m on vacation and repeatedly swear not to be pulled into blog conversations, but had to share the following vignette upon seeing your post:

    On the flight to Washington, a flight attendant sported one of the buttons you so dislike. Since we were flying out of SLC and LTU had lectured there the previous evening, I asked if the FA if she’d attended. She’d never heard of LTU; she’d just seen the quotation at a store and bought the button to counter the usual assumptions that women in her profession were demure stupid people devoid of any moxy. Being the natural missionary that I am (see: self-mockery) I told her a little about LTU as a Mormon in good standing who studies women’s history. Flight attendant: “You mean Mormon women can transgress ‘proper’ behavior in pursuit of righteousness? Mormon women can be feminists and still be Mormon? Maybe I should look around Utah more when I’m there.” (Ok, first sentence = paraphrase, but still).

    I see why the buttons may annoy–I find the ‘mormobilia’ at LDS bookstores largely revolting in their appropriation and cheapening of scriptural icons. Deseret Book and the market economy have sold out to BOM action figures (and time and place really dictate the appropriateness of arm-lopping, action figure be damned). But heck, one little button also made for one little opportunity to disabuse someone of their preconceived notions regarding docile, downtrodden Mormon gals such as you and me. Heh.

    Back to vacation….

  42. Adam Greenwood
    November 16, 2007 at 5:44 pm

    KW, #33,

    If you interprete ‘well-behaved’ as meaning ‘having aspirations and fulfilling roles that don’t usually make history,’ then you’re right that the slogan is true. By definition, because its a tautology. Women who don’t usually make history seldom make history. Pro-found.

    Anyway, do you think that’s the meaning the average gal who puts the slogan on her backpack or her t-shirt intends? Is the stewardess in #42 really broadcasting that she’s trying to be a general, inventor, president, or mass murderer? Until this thread I had no idea where the slogan had been plucked from. I’d only ever seen it as a grounds for belligerence and attitudinizing.

  43. Gabrielle Turner
    November 16, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    Well I’m a total non-intellectual and didn’t have the slightest idea who Ulrich was until I read this thread. But I did see a woman wearing the aforementioned t-shirt the other day. It *was* one of those immodestly cut t-shirts, skin tight, with the slogan across the breasts. I hadn’t ever heard the phrase, and assumed it was produced by the same sorts who produce the “You can look but you can’t touch” t-shirts. It seemed to me to have an obvious sexual connotation and I thought it was pretty pathetic.
    So for whatever it’s worth, I’m with Rosalynde on this one. And not just because I’m her sister.

  44. Doc
    November 16, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    What people are neglecting to mention is that LTU’s career has been built on innovative historiography using innovative sources to divine the history of those whose story is seldom told.

  45. ECS
    November 16, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    Prof. Ulrich is hardly responsible for women wearing tacky skin-tight t-shirts. Just as the LDS Church is not responsible for the salacious calendar made by recently-returned missionaries that everyone has been emailing to me (yes, I’ve seen it already!). Maybe Michael Otterson should issue a press release to notify everyone that the LDS Church doesn’t sponsor or condone the sale of calendars made with pictures of half naked returned missionaries.

    Incidentally, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a man being accused of “acting out”. This term is typically used to describe childrens’ behavior when they refuse to follow the directives of their parents. Or women who don’t conform to their prescribed role of quiet submissiveness.

  46. a random John
    November 16, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    I listened to the first half of the interview and I think Diane Rehm did a horrible job. Anybody else get them impression that she wanted to discuss all the weird implications of the title without having to read the book? She certainly didn’t engage with the original meaning of the quote as I understand it.

    I think much of Rosalynde’s point has to do with how Diane Rehm conducted the interview. It was pretty terrible.

    I must admit that I am biased as I think Diane’s voice is irritating and her slow speech does nothing for my ADD listening habits. Generally I find her show unlistenable. I remember back when I had a 120 mile one way commute trying to get to work before her show started simply because it meant that I would be feel compelled to listen to AM talk radio, which I found irritating but better than her show. The fact that I listened to half the show yesterday is a testament to my respect for LTU.

  47. Kaimi Wenger
    November 16, 2007 at 7:46 pm

    Adam G., Frank, and Matt,

    An example that dawned on me, belatedly:

    Last week, I pinch-hit for the regular primary pianist. (It’s a fun job.) We taught the kids the Presidents of the Church song: Joseph F. Smith, remember the F, Heber J Grant, and George Albert Smith . . .

    Afterwards, I jokingly remarked to the chorister (an intelligent, educated woman) that next week we should do a song about Relief Society presidents. She laughed, and said that she didn’t know any.

    And that’s true, really. I could name a few off the top of my head — Emma, Eliza, Emmeline, Bathsheba Smith, um, isn’t there an Amy in there somewhere?, and Elaine Jack. (And I consider myself a feminist, and actually _try_ to read about women in church history. I didn’t know any of those except Emma, coming out of seminary.)

    By contrast, I know my Prophets pretty well (and learned them as a seminary student), and I can name off many other extraneous apostles and other figures (Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon). And I know my apostles today — but I couldn’t name off the General Primary Presidency. (Is Julie Beck in it?)

    The scriptures are the same: Nephi, Alma, Mormon, Moroni, and . . . um . . . Nephi’s wife.

    It’s true that it’s rare for _anyone_ to make history. But some well-behaved men make history pretty well. It really is much more rare for well-behaved women. (Unless you think that RS presidents were less well-behaved than church presidents, or that Nephi’s wife was less well-behaved than he was.)

  48. Mark IV
    November 16, 2007 at 7:54 pm


    the term is acting UP, not out, and that is most assuredly a behavior associated with men, specifically gay men who engage in civil disobedience in an effort to gain attention and funding for AIDS research. You can google act + up + aids to find the chapter in your city. And I issue a challenge to anybody to find anyplace where a man, particularly a Mormon man, has described himself as feisty, as women routinely do. Instead, we are forced to conform to our prescribed role of sober propriety and deference to our better halves.

    Anything that is reduced to a bumper sticker or t-shirt has inevitably been cheapened. How many of the people who wear them are like the woman in Janet’s story who don’t know the first thing about prof. Ulrich? More than 50% would be my guess. The problem is not so much that it is on a t-shirt, but that the t-shirt is all the wearer knows. It is a shame that more people don’t know her and appreciate her.

  49. ECS
    November 16, 2007 at 8:03 pm

    Er, you’re proving my point, Mark. Gay men have historically been controlled and marginalized by social convention and stereotype much like women have. I do agree with your last paragraph, though. Particularly your last sentence.

  50. Rosalynde Welch
    November 16, 2007 at 8:06 pm

    “it’s absurd to call into question Prof. Ulrich’s judgment as if she tacitly encouraged the exploitation of the female body to sell her product.”

    On this we are in agreement.

  51. truebluethru\'n\'thru
    November 16, 2007 at 8:21 pm


    While most historians accept the fact that [Meriweather] Lewis did commit suicide, there have been many who have questioned this. They believe that his death may have been part of a far-reaching conspiracy and that this may be the reason that Lewis’ ghost is still believed to walk today!

    If indeed the famed adventurer’s death was a murder plot, the main culprit behind it is believed to be General James Wilkinson, Lewis’ predecessor. In 1804, Wilkinson had conspired with Aaron Burr to create their own “empire in the west” and had tried to extract money and weapons from both Britain and Spain. He even turned on Burr in 1806 and informed Thomas Jefferson of the plot. Burr was brought to trial but was somehow acquitted. Wilkinson too escaped punishment and in fact, even returned to the post of governor of Louisiana after Lewis’ death! It has been pointed out that Frederick Bates, who did much to sabotage Lewis’ career in St. Louis, was close to Wilkinson and remained in touch with him in New Orleans. It is surmised that perhaps Lewis, who was known for his honesty and integrity, may have discovered new evidence against Wilkinson and planned to use it. It is even believed that this may have been the real purpose behind his trip to Washington and even why he chose to take an overland route instead of journeying by river. Lewis may not have been afraid of British ships in the Gulf, but the fact that Wilkinson was in New Orleans!

    Could agents of Wilkinson have pursued Lewis?

  52. truebluethru\'n\'thru
    November 16, 2007 at 9:09 pm

    (Well behaved yet tragically heroic: “I work so hard to be conscientious. But I’m so depressed, I can’t bear to function. Should I resign the Louisiana governorship, due my enemies accusations maligning my integrity and competence? But if I do so, people would construe it as “in discrace” and shameful!… (A gun shot rings out.))

  53. smb
    November 16, 2007 at 11:00 pm

    Having read her new book, I believe your impression from the NPR show is misguided. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a wonderful and gracious person, a brilliant scholar, and a wonderfully committed Latter-day Saint. Part of what she has been doing these last couple decades is arguing for a new model to history which incorporates items once seen as absurd, things like t-shirts, coffee mugs, social protest, and the like. She is not simply a pop culture historian–what she does is much bigger than merely finding interest in interpreting People magazine. She has reminded us of the great potential meaning in the small acts and small lives of each of us, even those traditionally believed to have no power.

  54. Frank McIntyre
    November 17, 2007 at 2:15 am


    I agree completely that we have more history about men than women.
    But, uh, in what universe are prophets the appropriate control group for General Relief Society President? I’d say that was the “cheapest kind of lazy-minded[ness]”, but the title is taken.

  55. Kaimi Wenger
    November 17, 2007 at 3:34 am


    Okay, let’s include women prophets too. Go ahead, name all male and female prophets you can think of.

    Some well-behaved men become prophets; no well-behaved women do. It’s a construction — one of many — that seems designed to perpetuate Ulrich’s observation.

    Expand it to “people from the early church”, or “people from the Book of Mormon”, or “people from Ancient Rome.” The men outnumber the women. That’s in large part _because_ these societies have a number of male-only categories — prophets, generals, statesmen, and so on — and those categories just _happen_ to be the only ones that are consistently remembered.

  56. Western Dave
    November 18, 2007 at 10:28 pm

    My mom, born in 1931 had the button. She may still have it. It was a favorite saying of hers. She used it when she was loudly and not nicely advocating for hurt and abused kids when nobody else paid attention to them. She used it when she advocated for old folks who nobody gave a damn about. She used it when she decided to go to law school (CUNY Queens, “Law in the service of Human Needs” ’89). She used it when she negotiated with generals at the Pentagon to make sure their land sales from closed bases conformed to affordable housing laws. She used it when negotiating deals with townships, county, and state for same. So now when you see it on a t-shirt, you don’t have to think about somebody’s breasts, you can think about my mom, refusing to play nice and talk sweet and stand aside when somebody told her “they knew better.” She wasn’t well-behaved, she didn’t make history in the Great Man sense of the word, but she made a lot of people’s lives a heck of a lot better.
    Mom’s two other favorite slogans, “non corburundum illigitimi” (I think I got that right, I never took Latin). The other one involves the phrase, “If they can’t take a joke…” with the rest not fit for company.

  57. November 19, 2007 at 12:14 am

    “Don’e let the bastards get you down,” and “If they can’t take a joke, f*** ’em,” right?

    Your mom sounds like she was (still is?) a real pistol, Dave. We’re a better society because of the efforts of folks like her.

  58. Mark B.
    November 19, 2007 at 9:55 am

    Yeah, Kaimi, it’s an Amy Brown Lyman.

  59. Frank McIntyre
    November 19, 2007 at 11:08 am


    Kristine will be happy to give you a list of every woman even remotely close to having been a prophet. But I am not sure why that is relevant.

    Obviously we only have men as Prophets in the modern Church. That isn’t a function of how we do history, it’s a function of revelation from the Almighty. If your point is that prophets are remembered on average more than other Church leaders, I completely agree and I have trouble seeing that it should be any other way. Do you disagree?

  60. Kaimi Wenger
    November 19, 2007 at 12:47 pm


    But it’s not only prophets, is it? As I said earlier, you can easily “Expand it to “people from the early church”, or “people from the Book of Mormon”, or “people from Ancient Rome.” The men outnumber the women.

    There are a _total_ of six named women in the Book of Mormon, and three of those are Bible women who are mentioned in the BoM. Just _one_ Book of Mormon woman (Sariah) gets any sort of extended discussion. There are several (non-prophet) men who are named and discussed, people like Teancum, Sam, or Pahoran.

    Want to exclude prophets from the “people in the early church” discussion? Sure. We’ve still got broad knowledge of figures like Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, Martin Harris, eight witnesses, Porter Rockwell, and on and on.

    Well-behaved women _do_ make history at a rate substantially less frequently than well-behaved men. (My prophets example was intended to demonstrate that, and was a reply to Matt’s suggestion that there is essentially no disparity between male and female historical seldomness.)

    One can suggest various reasons for that fact, invidious or innocuous or both. One could suggest that portions of the disparity (or even the entire disparity) is due to God’s will. But as a descriptive matter, the statement seems to be absolutely true.

  61. Ardis Parshall
    November 19, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    Kaimi, if it’s any comfort, the forthcoming Mormon history volume in ABC-Clio’s new reference series on the history of world religions includes biographies of Juanita Brooks, Martha Hughes Cannon, Amy Brown Lyman, LaVern Watts Parmley, Aurelia Spencer Rogers, Patty Bartlett Sessions, Barbara Bradshaw Smith, Emma Hale Smith, Eliza R. Snow, Belle Smith Spafford, Elmina Shepherd Taylor, and Emmeline B. Wells.

    It includes bios of twice as many men (half of whom were church presidents).

    I wonder how many readers recognize the names of how many of these women?

  62. East Coast
    November 19, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    OK. Off the top of my head (really, I’m avoiding google and wikipedia).

    Juanita Brooks – historian famous for Mountain Meadows Massacre and Lee biography; didn’t tend to toe the official history line

    Martha Hughes Cannon – early Utah pre-19th amendment politician; didn’t she run against her husband and win?

    Amy Brown Lyman – general RS president and I believe mother in law of organist Alexander Schreiner (?); her husband was an apostle for a while

    LaVern Watts Parmley – sorry LaVern

    Aurelia Spencer Rogers – started Primary organization for children; she has a delightful little biography

    Patty Bartlett Sessions – didn’t she have something to do with medicine?

    Barbara Bradshaw Smith – general RS president

    Emma Hale Smith – general RS president; wife of Joseph Smith

    Eliza R. Snow – general RS president, poetess; kind of like Elinore of Aquitaine in her relationships (sister to one prophet, wife to two; if she’d had children, they could have been rather formidable figures in Utah history themselves)

    Belle Smith Spafford – general RS president

    Elmina Shepherd Taylor – sorry Elmina

    Emmeline B. Wells – major Utah suffragist; have her diaries ever been published? I remember reading through them in special collections at BYU while I was doing a paper on Elizabeth Pugsley Hayward (any takers on her identity? I’ll give you a hint: she introduced the 19th Amendment to the Utah Senate for ratification)

    I notice that the only two I’m drawing a total blank on are the ones with the Utah Mormon names: LaVern and Elmina. I hope I haven’t misidentified anyone, if so, I apologize profusely to their descendants.

  63. Frank McIntyre
    November 19, 2007 at 1:54 pm


    As I said, I have no problem with the descriptive claim that fewer women, good or bad, show up in history. But your Primary anecdote is silly because it is trying to compare RS presidents and prophets. What you want is to compare two groups with the only difference being gender, and then show that the males show up more in history. You could then estimate how much more they show up and label it the “male history premium”. Now that could be interesting.

    To somebody, anyway. The topic does not do alot for me because I figure we’ll get the history we want. If we want more female history, we get it. I’m not a history fanatic so it’s all second-order to me.

  64. November 19, 2007 at 2:21 pm

    East Coast, if I had a prize to give, you’d win it. Sister Parmley was Primary, and Sister Shepherd was YWMIA, both 20th century.

    Now I need to learn about Liz Hayward.

  65. paula
    November 19, 2007 at 2:27 pm

    Diane Rehm has spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological condition in which the vocal cords constrict when they’re not supposed to. (Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist, also does, but has improved a great deal lately.) I think it’s great that NPR keeps her on the show,and brave of her to do it.

  66. East Coast
    November 19, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    Thanks Ardis!

    I’d be happy to send you my bio of Elizabeth if you would like a copy. She served in the Utah legislature starting in 1915. Do you have access to my email address through comments?

  67. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
    December 1, 2007 at 9:10 am

    To Rosalynde Welch–thanks for starting this interesting discussion. My only regret is that during the hour you were listening to the Diane Rehm show you didn\’t put down the Comet and pick up the phone. This was a call-in program and your participation certainly would have improved the discussion. Did you consider joining the conversation, and if not, why not? I’d love to know.

    Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

  68. Rosalynde Welch
    December 2, 2007 at 10:49 am

    Dr. Ulrich, I am far too shy and retiring to publicly challenge a respected public figure. I try to avoid the spotlight of public controversy whenever possible. ((grin) is there any cheaper, more indulgent way to challenge a respected public and court public controversy than from a blog?)

    The truth is that not even a ghost of the idea of calling crossed my mind as I listened. I’ve never called a radio program before. If you’re ever interviewed in a similar forum again, I’ll call in to offer my compliments.

    I’m very pleased that you found your way to T&S, and honored that you commented here. Please feel welcome to do so again!

  69. just me
    December 8, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    …one of America’s greatest historians, Harvard’s Laurel Thatcher Ulrich – MacArthur Foundation “genius prize” winner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and a lifelong, practicing Mormon – also felt the chill coming from Salt Lake City. In 1992, the planning committee for a women’s conference at Brigham Young University proposed Ulrich as their keynote speaker. But before an invitation could be issued, the university vetoed her invitation.

    In her essay “Dangerous History,” Jan Shipps argues persuasively that Ulrich’s invitation was blocked because of her feminist reputation. Ulrich herself holds no grudge, noting that BYU recently invited her to lecture. She feels the school, and the church that runs it, were trying to make amends. “There was a great effort at BYU to let me know, without saying so, that people were pretty embarrassed.
    –Mark Oppenheimer (“Making Mormon history:
    An influential religion struggles with how to tell the story of its past,” The Boston Globe, December 9 http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2007/12/09/making_mormon_history/?page=1 )

Comments are closed.