Laurel Thatcher Ulrich didn't coin the phrase "well-behaved women seldom make history," but since the publication of her book by that name, the idiom has appeared on bumper stickers, greeting cards and T-shirts.
Ulrich, who will deliver a talk titled "Adventures in a Natural History Museum" at Boise State University on Thursday, April 14, teaches history at Harvard University and her work has contributed to the growing movement known as Mormon Feminism. She is a founding member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publication Exponent II, which focuses on the lives of Mormon women—but, for Ulrich, the study of LDS pioneer women is part of her broader interest in the history of women in America.
"I come from a long line of Latter-day Saints going back to the Pioneer period; as a fledgling historian I was interested in women and women's history," she said. "My main field of work has been women in earlier centuries."
During her talk, Ulrich—the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur "Genius" Grant winner and an Idaho native—will discuss museum trips she has taken with her students, specifically, an instance when they encountered artifacts from the life of Henry David Thoreau. They included pencils constructed at Thoreau's father's factory and a Native American pestle that had been used long before the area's colonization by Europeans.
"We go to Walden Pond to learn about Thoreau," she said. "We don't imagine going onto the university campus and going to the museum to learn about him."
Artifacts are Ulrich's specialty, and Thoreau's are only a slice of what she will discuss. She has built a career out of extrapolating information about people and their lives from the objects they built, used and left behind. In her 2010 address to the American Historical Association, "An American Album, 1857," she compared a quilt made by women in Utah with historical accounts of life in the area at the time. A past president of the AHA, Ulrich opened her monograph with what could be her credo: "Sometimes the best way to approach a big topic is to focus on a small one."
As someone whose occupation relies heavily on the examination of texts and objects, she has mixed feelings about the digital culture in which her students live. Taking them into her world—one where she studies woven baskets, home-spun clothing and the foodstuffs eaten by early Americans—the digital can complement the materials to create a more accessible study of history.
"I think [the union of the digital and material] can be powerfully interactive; and, certainly, museums are discovering that. ... When it's done skillfully, it's wonderful," she said.
Now, her students have begun to recreate pre-industrial tools, arts and cultural objects to help gain insight into the historical originals.
"One student gave us this fabulous Javanese puppet that she made that was inspired by an artifact in an anthropology museum that had been displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair in the 1890s," Ulrich said. "She attempted to reproduce it using modern materials and did an amazing job and said, ‘You can have it for your collection.’"
Ulrich, who was born and raised in Sugar City, has a new book set for release in January 2017, and is on the lookout for a new topic to tackle.
"I’m looking for a next project and I don’t know whether it’s going to be an Idaho project or not. If anybody has any good ideas, I’ll happily accept them," she said.