I suspect Dippity will make history

by Cellobella on Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Yes she is EIGHT! And had a delightful day. Thanks to everyone who made her feel special today, she has gone to bed feeling much loved.

And speaking of my favourite saying, I wrote today to Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich who first wrote the line “Well behaved women seldom make history”, and asked her the circumstances of her most famous line. I reprint her reply below with the news that she is currently writing a book – due to be published in 2006/7 – of the same title. She writes: “Here are a few sentences from the introduction that will explain. . .

“I owe this curious fame to a single line from a scholarly article I published in 1976. In the opening paragraph, I wrote, “Well-behaved womenseldom make history.” That sentence, ripped from its context and slightly altered, escaped into the big wide world in 1995 when journalist Kay Mills used it as an epigraph in From Pocahontas to Power Suits, a popular history of American women. Apparently quoting from memory, Mills changed the word seldom to rarely.

“Her misquote didn’t change the point. According to my dictionary, seldom and rarely mean the same thing: “Well-behaved women infrequently, or on few occasions make history.” The popularity of my slogan may be one of those occasions. My original article was a study of the well-behaved women celebrated in Puritan funeral sermons.

“In 1996, a young women named Jill Portugal found Mills’s version of my sentence in her roommate’s copy of the New Beacon Book of Quotations by Women. She wrote me from Oregon asking permission to print it on tee-shirts. I was amused by her request, and since I had a daughter the same age who was living in Oregon and trying to start a little business, I told her to go ahead. What harm could it do? The success of her enterprise surprised both of us. A plain white tee-shirt with the words “Well-behaved women rarely make history” printed in black Roman type became the best-selling item in her line. Portugal calls her company “one angry girl designs”. Committed to “taking over the world one tee-shirt at a time,” she fights sexual harassment, rape, pornography, and what she calls “Fascist Beauty Standards.”

Her success inspired imitators. My runaway sentence now keeps company with anarchists, hedonists, would-be witches, political activists of many descriptions, and quite a few well-behaved women. It has been featured in CosmoGirl, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creative Keepsake Scrapbooking Magazine. According to news reports, it was a favorite of the pioneering computer scientist Anita Borg. The comic Sweet Potato Queenshave adopted it as an “official maxim”, selling their own pink and green version of the tee-shirt alongside one that reads, “Never Wear Panties to a Party”.”

I actually get a lot of fan mail. I am amazed, amused, and puzzled about this whole thing. Hence the book, which will be a brief, but I hope unusual, introduction to women’s history. I can’t resist this “teaching moment”. If you want to look at the original article, here is the cite: “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735,” American Quarterly 28 (1976): 20-40

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Phillips Professor of Early American History
Harvard University

{ 1 comment }

Previous post:

Next post: