Making Women's History

A few weeks ago I interviewed Exponent II Founding Mother Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. She read some passages from her latest book, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, and she answered my questions about historical writing and research. You can listen to the first segment of our chat via podcast. The second half of our discussion will be posted to the Making History Podcast later next week.

Laurel mentions the Exponent II (even showing an image of the front cover) at different points in her book. Speaking of her own attempts at “making history,” she writes:

“My friends and I called our feminist newspaper Exponent II to honor a nineteenth-century pro-suffrage periodical launched by Mormon women in Utah in 1872. Most of us had grown up knowing about the heroism of pioneer ancestors who had participated in the epic trek across the United States, but until we had discovered old copies of the original Woman’s Exponent, few of us knew anything about early Mormon feminism. We did not know that Utah women voted and held office fifty years before women in the eastern United States, not that polygamists’ wives has attended medical school, published newspapers, and organized cooperative enterprises. Reading their words, we were astonished at how confidently these pioneer women insisted on their right to participate in public life and work…we found in their lives models for religious commitment, social activism, and personal achievement that seemed far more powerful that the complacent domesticity portrayed in popular magazines or in our own congregations.”

Laurel closes her book with a potent rumination about women who “make history.” She says that “well-behaved women make history when they do the unexpected, when they create and preserve records, and when later generations care.”

My question for you, is whether you fit into any of these categories? Are you making history by doing something unexpected or my keeping records? And do you think that today’s generation cares about the lives of their foremothers in the same way that Laurel and her sisters cared about early Mormon women?

And one last question: do you own a t-shirt, mug, sticker, totebag, or other paraphernalia with Laurel’s now-famous phrase? (Me, I’ve got the bumper sticker but it graces my favorite water bottle rather than the rear of my car…)


Jana is a university administrator and teaches History. Her soloblog is

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12 Responses

  1. Catherine O. says:

    The last time I saw my mother, six weeks before she died in 2001, she was writing in her journal. She told me then that she had never allowed anyone to read her journals, but after she was gone I was to take care of them. It was another two years before I sat down and read them all (20+ large volumes). I had previously helped my dad finish writing his life story, and he wanted me to write my mother’s as a companion volume to his, taking the information from her journals. It was a monumental task that consumed most of a year and a half of my life, but Dad read the final draft three weeks before he died in 2005.
    I have since done much research on other female ancestors, and I am just beginning the writing of some of their stories. With all of my research and writing I have come to know and love these women, for their weaknesses as well as for their strengths, and understanding them has helped me better understand myself. I hear people complain (as I have also) that women of the past didn’t have a voice, but we can give them voices by telling their stories. There is really an amazing amount of material available (letters, diaries, even grocery lists) that open windows into their lives. No matter how ordinary, they each have a story. Ironically, when you delve into their lives, there is no “ordinary”. They are all extraordinary.

  2. Ardis says:

    Our stake’s historian is putting the finishing touches on the stake history by collecting brief autobiographies from as many stake members as she could. Most, I’m sure, are petty standard “I was born … I married … I know the church is true …” I tried to imagine what a future historian might want to find, and included a few paragraphs about a specific aspect of being a single woman in the early 21st century church, hoping to give that future historian a concrete primary source for some future study. In other words, I think we should look for opportunities to leave footprints in places that will be preserved, even if they’re small ones.

  3. jana says:

    Perhaps much of my motivation for blogging is to leave my footprint on the world. Will future historians find my writing? I can hope 🙂

    I would be very interested in reading what you wrote about your life as a 21st-century single Mormon woman. Perhaps you might consider sending it to us as a guest post?

  4. jana says:

    Catherine O:
    Someday I’m looking forward to reading my own mother’s journals. Thanks for sharing your experiences with your family history.

  5. AmyB says:

    My DH is an editor on the Journal of Law and Gender at his law school. The saying is hanging up in his office. (He didn’t put it there- it was already there when he started.)

  6. Karen says:

    I’ve been a Laurel fan ever since I read ‘A Midwife’s Tale’.

    I try to leave a little history behind me through my calenders. This year I’m trying to keep track of some of the regualr and not so regular happenings.

    I don’t know if I am from today’s generation, but I care about my foremothers. Just today I was reading letters written by my 4th great grandmother who was part of the Relief Society in Nauvoo, who husband died soon after arriving in Nauvoo. Amazing to have a glimpse into her life- and into history.

    I have a bumper sticker with the phrase on my wall in my room.

  7. Deborah says:

    Jana — I look forward to listening to those podcasts!

    “when they create and preserve records” I do think LDS Women blogging falls into this category, providing an egalitarian forum for sharing their thoughts, hopes, lives, ambitions.

  8. Anonymous says:

    For those in the Seattle area:

    Sister Ulrich will be speaking at a fireside sponsored by the Seattle North Stake Single Adult Committee on February 24th at 7 p.m. at the Seattle North Stake Center. She’ll be speaking on “Telling Our Own Stories”–about the importance of Latter-day Saints telling their own stories to the world and to one another and not letting others speak for them.

  9. G says:

    LOVED this book!!! (and love Ulrich too) can’t wait to listen to the podcast

    those were my thoughts too when I read that book… will history remember me?

    blogging for me is sort of a way to make a mark… I journal too… (but when I publish stuff on my blog it has been spell checked and edited… my journal is pretty raw, not so good for history.)

    but I am not so good at knowing the histories of my formothers. need to work on that more.

  10. G says:

    and no, dang it… I don’t yet have any paraphernalia with “Well Behaved Women…” on it.

    I want the tshirt.

  11. Caroline says:

    Can’t wait to listen to that podcast!

    I’ve got Laurel’s phrase carved in to my license plate frame.

    And as for making history, I don’t do that much other than blog. Though I do love the idea of doing something unexpected… I guess I’ll just have to keep trying to figure out what that unexpected thing might be.

  12. cchrissyy says:

    thanks for the tip, I listened to both parts of the podcast this week and really enjoyed it. I read the Midwife’s Tale and own 2 of her other books so I’m more motivated now to get to them!

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