The worn quilt that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich holds in her lap has faded from generations of daily use. As she sits in her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she examines the pattern and stitching, looking for historical clues. Quilts like this one might not seem like much. Yet to Ulrich BA’60, quilts and other objects such as looms, stockings, and wooden cupboards, as well as women’s diaries of the quotidian details of housework and everyday life, hold rich stories of the people who used them. Until recent years, those stories often went unrevealed in American history. As Ulrich put it in the now-famous phrase she first wrote back in 1976: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
Over a career spanning decades, though, Ulrich, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a history professor at Harvard University, has added previously untold chapters to history by exploring the lives revealed by those household objects and diaries.
Ulrich herself started out far from the spotlight of history, as a student and wife in the rural West. She was born and raised in the small farming community of Sugar City, in eastern Idaho, where her father was a teacher and school administrator and her mother was a housewife. The family was active in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both her parents had attended the University of Utah, so after she received a General Motors National Scholarship, she followed her older brother to her parents’ alma mater. The U also is where she met her husband, Gael Ulrich BS’59 MS’62, who was studying engineering. She married him between her sophomore and junior years.
“I took the education courses that allowed me to become certified as an English teacher, thinking that was what one did with a degree in English,” she says, with a hint of wry humor. “But by the time I finished, I was married and pregnant, and so I didn’t [become a teacher].” While taking those English classes, she took a course in colonial American literature. “I was totally entranced by that early material,” she says, “but I never imagined it would become my specialty.”
Ulrich received her English degree from the U in 1960, and she and her husband promptly moved to Cambridge, so he could begin work on his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a student in Utah, Ulrich had read so much early and classic American literature—most of which is centered in New England—that, she says, arriving in Massachusetts provoked “a strange feeling of coming home.” At a time when the women’s and civil rights movements were rising across the nation, Ulrich gave birth to her first child and settled into her role as a young student wife. In 1970, Ulrich’s husband took a faculty position at the University of New Hampshire, and she moved with him to Durham, where their family would eventually grow to include three sons and two daughters. During those years, Ulrich worked on her master’s degree in English from Simmons College, and she began meeting with a group of LDS friends in the Boston area to study women’s issues. Like many women of every background and faith in the nation at the time, Ulrich and her friends were moved to examine their roles as women and what it meant to have—or not have—rights and opportunities.
For insight, the group began studying historic women of their own LDS religion. They soon discovered a Utah pro-suffrage newspaper from a hundred years earlier called the Women’s Exponent. Edited by Mormon women, the Exponent was outspoken in its support of almost everything dealing with women’s issues, including health, education, and employment. Ulrich and her friends were inspired by their historic predecessors to create their own periodical addressing the rising consciousness of women in the LDS Church. The group launched Exponent II’s first issue in 1974. Within a year, they had more than 4,000 subscribers.
Meanwhile, Ulrich’s love of history was blossoming. Taking advantage of her husband’s half-price tuition benefit, she enrolled in a history course on the literature of early America and “fell in love with the field.” Solidly hooked, she enrolled in the doctoral program in history.
Her studies merged her two great interests: women’s issues and history. But she took a different approach from many of her contemporaries. As Ulrich explains, “A lot of early feminist interest focused on things like the suffrage movement, the history of witchcraft, the persecution of women—women as victims. My training in social history, and my own experience as a mother and neighbor, and the kinds of things we do when raising a family made me want to say, ‘What about these invisible people we know so little about?’ … I was trying to recover the very little-known lives of women.”
Research into the women who wove the fabric of ordinary society in early America was difficult because of limited records. But then she found an unusual source for her research: funeral sermons. In 1976, her research into those sermons evolved into her first scholarly article, “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735,” in American Quarterly. In the first paragraph, Ulrich wrote, “[Puritan minister] Cotton Mather called them ‘the hidden ones.’ They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question God or the magistrates. They prayed secretly, read the Bible through at least once a year, and went to hear the minister preach even when it snowed. Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history.” That last sentence would sit there for almost two decades before finding a life of its own.
By 1980, Ulrich’s children were grown and developing lives of their own, and she received her doctorate in history from the University of New Hampshire and accepted a position there as an assistant professor. She also began working on the draft of her first book, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750. In it, she scoured the scant sources available—such as court, probate, and church records—to illuminate the heretofore hidden lives of women in early colonial America and the roles they played.
After Good Wives was published in 1982, Ulrich was looking for a new project. Then she came across the diaries of 18th-century Maine midwife Martha Ballard, locked in a vault at the Maine State Library. Ulrich had never seen so many pages written in a woman’s hand from that time period, because women’s diaries from then were extremely rare. She knew she’d found her project. Ulrich analyzed the daily entries in the mostly spare, ledger-style diaries, which had been reviewed and discounted as unhelpful by many other historians. With impeccable research, Ulrich merged the information from Ballard’s fragile pages with other sources, written and material, and wove a series of chapters that expose the village of Hallowell, Maine, in breathtaking realism. A textile industry blooms. Sexual attitudes manifest themselves. Disease cycles run their course. And labor issues, such as hiring, transferring, and docking pay for missed work, reveal the strikingly present female half of the workforce.
Ulrich’s book, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1991, as well as the Bancroft Prize in American History. And in 1992, she
received one of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowships that have earned the nickname “genius grants.”
In 1995, Ulrich accepted a joint appointment in history and women’s studies at Harvard University. That same year, journalist Kay Mills used Ulrich’s “well-behaved women” phrase as an epigraph in her book about women’s history in America, From Pocahontas to Power Suits: Everything You Need to Know about Women’s History in America. “Then someone put it in a book of quotations, then someone got the idea of putting it on T-shirts,” says Ulrich, laughing. “It got out of hand. It was quite hilarious.”
More than two decades after Ulrich first wrote it, her well-turned sentence had finally blasted its way into popular culture, appearing on everything from bumper stickers to mugs to clothing. “I have a big collection,” Ulrich admits. She seems especially amused by items that wrongly attribute the quote to Eleanor Roosevelt or Marilyn Monroe.
Ulrich’s work received even more popular exposure in 1998 when PBS produced a documentary about A Midwife’s Tale as part of its series The American Experience, with Ulrich serving as a consultant, script collaborator, and narrator. The film showed not just the story of the midwife Ballard, but the remarkable detective story of how Ulrich pieced together Ballard’s life history. “Social history,” Ulrich says, “looks at society and history from the bottom up. It looks at the general or common person, and the uses of labor and work.” The stories of ordinary people in everyday life can reveal evidence about why history unfolded as it did.
Ulrich knew that although most history was originally written by and for men, women kept the local society together and, just as importantly, kept the local economy thriving. While men’s documents included political treatises and records for particular industries, women’s records might reveal entire parallel, but hidden, industries of their own, such as food exchanges, midwifery and medicine, and textile production. She found that “most male diarists do not write about women, but all women diarists write about men.”
So as Ulrich’s search for untold stories continued, she found herself relying on another of her passions: material culture, a broad field that focuses on the material world and uses objects, landscapes, and artifacts as evidence for historical study, she says. “Some people think of the work I do as above-ground archaeology.”
To produce her third book, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth, Ulrich analyzed the household objects that women made, used, and handed down from mother to daughter in the household economy of textile production. Her work yielded new glimpses into the local economies that underpinned the “bigger” events documented by men.
In 2007, she decided her popular “well-behaved women” slogan deserved a book of its own, and she published Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. She examined “how and under what circumstances women have made history,” ranging beyond New England to look at the historical significance of individual women from different times and places.
Ulrich is now the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard, an honor awarded to “individuals of distinction … working on the frontiers of knowledge, and in such a way as to cross the conventional boundaries of the specialties,” according to the Harvard Gazette. She and her husband still call New England home. The renovated 19th-century carriage house they live in is within walking distance of Ulrich’s Harvard office and the Harvard libraries and collections that continue to fascinate her.
She has been on sabbatical this past year while she writes her latest book, “A House Full of Females”: Faith and Families in Nineteenth-Century Mormon Diaries. Although Mormonism hasn’t been Ulrich’s area of professional specialization, she has continued to be engaged in church activities and service.
“The time was right for me to move into a new area of research, one that I had long been interested in but hadn’t had time to explore,” she says. “The opening of the new Church History library with its amazing resources and ability to connect with some collections digitally was also an attraction.”
The new book, she says, is “about polygamy, but it’s also about women’s organizational life in 19th-century Mormonism and the surprising relationship between a form of family organization that seems very patriarchal and the emergence of a very powerful women’s rights movement.”
Ulrich returned to the University of Utah this past August to talk about those 19th-century LDS women’s diaries when she gave the 2012 Sterling M. McMurrin Lecture on Religion and Culture for the Tanner Humanities Center.
Over the decades, Ulrich has watched the field of women’s history go from an under-appreciated offshoot to mainstream. “Women’s history is now very well established. In fact, I think maybe it’s even more than that,” she says. “It would be irresponsible today to try to write serious history without paying attention to gender and women.” And Ulrich has been a crucial contributor to that change.
As for “well-behaved women making history”? In the introduction to her book that uses the quote in its title, Ulrich writes: “When I wrote that ‘well-behaved women seldom make history,’ I was making a commitment to help recover the lives of otherwise obscure women. I had no idea that thirty years later, my own words would come back to me transformed. While I like some of the uses of the slogan more than others, I wouldn’t call it back even if I could. I applaud the fact that so many people—students, teachers, quilters, nurses, newspaper columnists, old ladies in nursing homes, and mayors of Western towns—think they have the right to make history.”
—Kelley J.P. Lindberg BS’84 is a freelance writer based in Layton, Utah, and a frequent contributor to Continuum.