Saturday, December 13, 2008

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

NYT's review
Ulrich, a Harvard historian whose “Midwife’s Tale” won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for history, uses “three classic works in Western feminism” as a springboard for examining the theme of “bad” behavior. Could the popularity of her slogan, she wondered, be explained by “feminism, postfeminism or something much older?” The answer emerges in Ulrich’s choice of texts: Christine de Pizan’s “Book of the City of Ladies,” written in 1405; Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Eighty Years and More,” published in 1898; and “A Room of One’s Own,” based on two lectures Virginia Woolf gave in 1928 — all works by women who “turned to history as a way of making sense of their own lives.” History, Ulrich reminds us, “isn’t just what happens in the past,” but what we choose to remember. As much invention as discovery, history attempts to make the chaotic present into a coherent picture by comparing it to images, equally artificial, fashioned from events long past.

Pizan, Stanton, Woolf: three women with “intellectual fathers” and “domestic mothers,” who were “raised in settings that simultaneously encouraged and thwarted their love of learning” and “married men who supported their intellectual ambitions.” For each, her “moment of illumination came through an encounter with an odious book” expressing man’s “disdain” for women. Pizan responded to a 15th- century satire containing “diatribes” against her sex, Stanton to law tomes that set forth the rights of husbands and fathers over their wives and daughters, Woolf to “The Mental, Moral and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex,” an imagined history representing what she discovered in the reading room of the British Museum.

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. The “Amazons” chapter is illustrated by examples from archaeological digs in Kazakhstan, South American folk tales and her own cultural backyard, which yields “an Olympic athlete, a female soldier, a lesbian separatist, a comic-book heroine.” Her associative logic reveals how A prefigures Q or even Z rather than ordering A before B before C, and brings a female sensibility to what is more typically the linear, cause-and-effect formula of history, a majority of which, Ulrich points out, is written by men.

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