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Author clarifies her misinterpreted slogan in SMC speech

Laura Gleason | Thursday, March 30, 2006

Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who coined the phrase, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” clarified the commonly misinterpreted slogan in a lecture at Saint Mary’s Wednesday.

Most people understand the quote to mean, “Bad girls have more fun,” but Ulrich said this interpretation is inaccurate.

Ulrich – who famously penned the book, “A Midwife’s Tale” – said the ambiguous slogan can only be understood in context. Originally printed in her first scholarly article in 1976, the statement referred to a group of Puritan women in colonial America who submitted to an alarmingly strict moral code of behavior.

This “accidental slogan” was intended to be a reflection on the way in which “virtuous” women in colonial America were inhibited – and not as an endorsement of “bad” behavior among women, she said.

To the amusement of Ulrich, her misunderstood reflection on the lives of early American women has caught fire in popular culture. The famous words, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” are now plastered on T-shirts, bumper stickers and mugs. They have even been incorporated into the lyrics of a song.

Ulrich jokingly drew attention to her slogan’s association with wild, even criminal women. One woman from Denver who had been arrested “at least a dozen times” and was known for indulgent drug use was spotted driving a car with her famous saying on it.

Though she addressed the misinterpretation of her slogan with humor, Ulrich nonetheless made sure to correct the public’s misconception of her words. Ulrich focused on the life of Rosa Parks – who she called “the icon of the civil rights movement – to illustrate her point. She asked if Parks was a well-behaved woman.

“The Montgomery, Ala. Bus Company didn’t think so,” she said.

Ulrich said in terms of morality, Parks was remarkably well-behaved. Though she broke the law, she was morally clean, reliable, courageous and wiling to say, ‘No.’

“[Parks’] refusal to obey the law sparked a 361 day-long boycott, put Martin Luther King Jr. in the public eye and led to the historic Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public places, ” she said. “Her good behavior helped to justify her rebellion and win public support for her cause.”

Ulrich said it was Parks’ good behavior – not bad – that won her a spot in history.