- Middlebrow Feminism
When Virginia Woolf used the word “middlebrow,” she was describing the editors and readers of vogue, where she was allowed to write what she wanted, and poking fun at her Bloomsbury friends, who would never let their names appear in such a place.1 Of course, by publishing Woolf, vogue immediately ascended out of the middlebrow. “Highbrow” journals like The Times Literary Supplement refused to publish what Woolf wrote about Henry James, and she dismissed such snobbery for the sake of freedom. The word “middlebrow” has a far different valence in the U.S. today, implying comfort and consensus. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book jumps from the academic highbrow world where she earned the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize for A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812 to the middlebrow world of a kind of populist feminism.2 A chaired professor at Harvard and a Phi Beta Kappa Scholar, Ulrich has spent her career writing as a well-behaved woman about well-behaved women whose voices had been lost to history.
Now she has written a book for middlebrow readers that might be called “Feminism Without Tears.” I imagine her heroines—Christine de Pisan, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Virginia Woolf—trying to wriggle out of Ulrich’s firm grasp, refusing to stay in the box. “But, you may say,”—the famous opening words of A Room of One’s Own, words that invite the reader to object or argue with the speaker—are words that come to my lips throughout this book.3 Certainly the feminism invoked in the potted biographies of her three feminist saints, all from secondary sources, cannot compare intellectually to her prize-winning original research in A Midwife’s Tale, says my scholarly self. Surely, contradicts my feminist conscience, the broad cultural effect of such an appeal to the unconverted is as important as documenting the lives of obscure white women.
What we have here is a positive narrative of (certain) women’s achievements embedded in a feminist history so soft that even Lynne Cheney might be delighted with it. The complicated, equivocal tone of the title—Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History—with its mild nonthreatening manner and the unsettling use of the word “seldom” is a clue to the [End Page 159] project of the book. It seems to be aimed at middle America and middle Americans, making a well-behaved women’s history that is well within the comfort zone of conservative readers and moderate ones as well. Frankly, this is women’s history American style: pragmatic and upbeat, a progress report in positive thinking about women’s rise to equality. It can be safely given to fathers and their daughters—neither of whom will find themselves blamed for keeping women down—as well as to women who are purposefully well behaved as a conscious policy of distancing themselves from feminism. Radical feminists may object.
This is women’s history for the masses and a secular hagiography of the author’s heroines: Christine de Pizan, author of the fifteenth-century Book of the City of Ladies; the Virgina Woolf of A Room of One’s Own; and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, by way of her memoir Eighty Years and More (1898). Ulrich’s “buts” or rebuttals to these canonical texts are often essential. The book is packed with amazing stories of great and common women, with a truly wonderful chapter on Amazons using Lillian Robinson’s brilliant tour de force from the Amazons to the comics.4 Ulrich gently brings her heroines up to date by revising their prejudices and supplying the lacks in their projects. Her chapter on all that Woolf lamented she did not know in the great historical gulf “between Sappho and Jane Austen” 5 should be required reading with A Room of One’s Own as a tribute to the research of historians in the waves of twentieth-century feminist scholarship.
Ulrich rewrites the books of each of these “ladies” in terms of the work done...