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Top Five Reasons Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History...

10/05/2007 04:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Come on, take my quiz and test your knowledge of the role of women in history:

*What is the name of the woman who initiated the nineteenth-century in the United States that led to the passage of the women's suffrage amendment?

*What is the name of Christine de Pizan's seminal work?

*When was Virgina Woolf's A Room of One's Own published?

*In what year did Harriet Tubman escape from Maryland?

* Which pop star lost custody of her two sons this past week?

If you were only able to correctly answer one out of the five -- and question five, at that -- then you bear witness to the fact that well-behaved women seldom make history.

I've spent the better part of the past 18 months holed up in various branches of the New York Public Library, working assiduously on an anthology of speeches entitled Eloquent Delivery - 150 Great Speeches by Female Activists and Political Leaders, from Cady Stanton to Chisholm to Clinton. As I shopped my project and met with editors at top publishing houses, my file folder of rejection letters grew thicker by the minute. One of the recurring reasons editors gave for declining the project was the absence of a market to sustain such a publication, notwithstanding the fact that anthologies currently on the market are -- relatively speaking -- devoid of female voices.

At the same time that editors were finding insufficient readership base, we witnessed the installation of Michelle Bachelet as President of Chile, Michael Jean as Governor General of Canada, and Angela Merkel as Chancellor of Germany. On the home front, Hillary Clinton -- former First Lady turned Senator -- launched her presidential campaign and this week, emerged as the candidate to be beat for nomination to the Democratic Party.

So last Saturday, I was thrilled to stumble upon Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, in which she looks at how and under what circumstances women have made history. What did women do in the past? How were their actions recorded? How do later generations remember these women? Ulrich's stated goal is "to show the intersection of present and past in the making of history." According to Ulrich, people not only make history by living their lives, but by creating records and by turning other people's lives into books or slogans.

In the book, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, Ulrich presents us with a cross section of women who not only used history to argue against the narrow definition of womanhood, but who also breached the 'equality/difference' divide -- Pizan, Stanton, and Woolf, for example. In the chapter "Amazons," we meet not only female (mythical) warriors who fought against the Greeks in the Trojan War, but also modern day warriors, "amazons reborn." In the chapter "Slave in the Attic", we meet Harriet Powell, Harriet Jacobs, and Harriet Tubman -- who engaged in acts of rebellion by escaping slavery and fleeing north to set up the Underground Railroad.

So this brings me to the inevitable question. How do we define "well-behaved"? Is a well-behaved woman pliant and deferential? Does she choose not to speak her mind for fear of being labeled opinionated? Does well-behaved mean succeeding in your field of expertise, even if it is a field not traditionally dominated by women?

Why is it that well-behaved women seldom make history? Is it because women are not supposed to stand out in a crowd? Or do people still think women's bodies impel them to nurture? Is it that women's stories do not survive because no one cared? Was there inadequate record-keeping of history?

Whatever the reasons, I persevere with my anthology; confident it would find a deserving publishing home so that the collective voices of these speakers can be heard. Next on my agenda will be biographies of three legal luminaries who recently passed away: Judge Jane Bolin (first black woman in the United States to become a judge); Attorney Cora Walker (one of the first black women to practice law in the state of New York); and Judge Constance Baker Motley (first black woman to serve as a federal judge). By chronicling their life stories and turning them into books, I hope these three well-behaved women assume their rightful places in the annals of history.

Here's to good behavior!