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.)