It was a meme before meme was a thing. Pulitzer prize-winning author, Idaho native, and Harvard Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich observed in 1976 in her first scholarly paper (on funeral sermons for women) that “well-behaved women seldom make history.” The comment became a popular slogan appearing on t-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, greeting cards, websites and blogs. In her book by the same title (2007), Ulrich explains how the phenomenon happened and what it means by looking back at women of the past who challenged the way history was written. The women she writes about range from the fifteenth-century writer Christine de Pizan, who wrote “The Book of the City of Ladies,” to the twentieth century’s Virginia Woolf, author of “A Room of One's Own.” Ulrich updates their attempts to reimagine female possibilities and looks at the women who didn't try to make history but did. And she concludes by showing how the 1970s activists who created "second-wave feminism" also created a renaissance in the study of history.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich won the 1991 Pulitzer prize for history for “A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812,” in which she draws on the diaries of a midwife and healer in eighteenth-century Maine, to produce an intimate history illuminating the medical practices, household economies, religious rivalries, and sexual mores of the New England frontier.
Ulrich’s books also include: “The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth,” and “Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750.” She is also a co-author of “Tangible Things: Making History through Objects.”
Corydon Ireland, writing in the Harvard Gazette, gives us a brief biographical sketch:
“Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is Harvard’s 300th Anniversary University Professor, a feminist scholar with a taste for history from the bottom up and an appreciation for the pedagogic power of artifacts like hand-woven cloth and furniture.
In 1990, she unraveled a cryptic 18th-century diary in ‘A Midwife’s Tale,’ which earned a Pulitzer Prize. Soon after came a MacArthur Fellowship, and then — in 1995, when Ulrich was 57 — an invitation to teach at Harvard.
Ulrich grew up in Sugar City, Idaho, the dutiful and precocious daughter in a fifth-generation Mormon family. She studied English at the University of Utah and was already married and pregnant by the time she graduated as valedictorian. She followed her husband east for his graduate studies, fell in with a writerly collective of Mormon feminists, and earned a master’s degree part time.
Ulrich enrolled in a Ph.D. program in history at the University of New Hampshire (she had never taken a history course) and set to work. Her first scholarly paper, on funeral sermons for women, included a line that not only marked her for fame, but was an expression of her own story: ‘Well-behaved women seldom make history.’”
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and her husband, Gael Ulrich, are the parents of five children, and live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This episode of Access Utah is made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative for a collaboration between Utah Public Radio, Utah Humanities, the Salt Lake Tribune, and KCPW. Campfires is a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prizes Board and the Federation of State Humanities Council in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the Prizes. The initiative seeks to illuminate the impact of journalism and the humanities on American life today, to imagine their future and to inspire new generations to consider the values represented by the body of Pulitzer Prize-winning work. The Campfires Initiative is supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Pulitzer Prizes Board, and Columbia University.