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Laurel Thatcher Ulrich


You may have seen her words without knowing it. The author of the phrase, "Well-behaved women rarely make history," is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a native Idahoan and a distinguished professor at Harvard University. The recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1991 for A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Ulrich was also a MacArthur "Genius" Fellow from 1992 to 1997.

She grew up in Sugar City, is a practicing Mormon and a self-described feminist. BW caught up with her after her keynote address to the annual Idaho Council for History Education conference.

BW: When you were working on A Midwife's Tale you didn't think anyone would be interested. Not only were they interested, you got a Pulitzer. How did you find out and what was your reaction?

I was sitting in my office, and the phone rang and someone screamed in my ear, "Pulitzer!" It was my editor. The book had won several prizes actually before the Pulitzer, which I thought was amazing and wonderful, and I couldn't imagine anything neater. So I certainly wasn't expecting that.

In The Age of Homespun, you look at cloth and trace some social movements through that. What can we learn from looking at our own objects in our life more closely?

I think we have such an abundance in our world nobody sees anything anymore. Human beings relate to the world through manipulating matter. And I think we lose a little bit of our humanness when we don't understand what's around us. One of the most fun moments in my life was when my son found my portable typewriter. And he of course was using a computer. And he just laughed and said, "You push this and it does that!" It was just magical to him. It took him to another world.

I have an old hand-crank clothes wringer of my grandmother's that I'd like to keep, but my mother thinks I should throw it away.

No! Keep it so her great-grandchildren will know how hard she worked.

The phrase you coined, "Well-behaved women rarely make history," has come to mean that if you're a woman and you want to make history you need to misbehave. And in fact you meant the opposite, as in "Well-behaved women don't get their due."

Exactly. It's come to mean everything and anything. Every once in a while I'll Google and see where's it's turned up next. It's come to mean a whole range of things, from the very frivolous to the very serious. And actually, I've just handed in a manuscript of a book with that title, which will be out next fall.

So is the book about those responses?

No. The book is really about the renaissance in women's history. I entered the profession as it was beginning, and it transformed my life.

How does an historian, who deals in facts and evidence, reconcile that with also being a person of faith and believing in things there may not be any proof of?

Well, I think that dichotomy is a little skewed ... history isn't just fact. History is developing inferences and interpretation out of a cluster of evidence that is never sufficient. And I think religion is about creating a meaningful life out of things you can't always explain.

And for me my faith is so much a part of my identity that I couldn't not have it. Faith is an issue about faith in ultimate meaning, ultimate truth, in values, in inspiration. Maybe I'm not a very orthodox person, but I don't see that discrepancy in my life.

One thing I haven't done is written Mormon history and I'm thinking about doing it. And that is a really interesting question, because it might be different if you were studying your own.

How did being Mormon influence your choice of career?

I think my Mormonism has been extremely important to me in terms of my whole orientation toward history. Because I have an acute consciousness of being a part of a stigmatized, persecuted minority group and I tend to identify quite easily with that. I grew up thinking the good people are not necessarily the people in charge.

And the other part of it is the sense that, "Boy, the past matters." I mean, I was born in '38, so I was 9 years old in 1947, which was the centennial of the pioneers coming into the Salt Lake Valley. I just think that whole thing frames your world. It frames your world so much that I had to learn to "misbehave" in order to create a new kind of life, not to just be caught. And I had to recreate and redefine what my religious tradition and my faith meant.

There are a lot of things about Mormonism and Mormon history that drive me nuts--the mythologizing of Mormon history and the erasures in Mormon history, as in American history in general. I mean, American history is a tragic history. It's not a pretty story. Joseph Smith's history is a very mixed story, extremely mixed story ... we need to know this; we need to know these things.

How did growing up in Idaho influence you?

I think it was great, because it wasn't very gentrified. There was just something kind of forthright and down-to-earth about people in a small rural community. I mean, I felt like I was surrounded by very strong women who knew how to do all kinds of things, and had to.

I always wanted to write, from day one. So maybe being in this small town, there's not a lot to do ... I identified very early on with the magazines that came to the house every week or month, and I would write and I would send things out. And I think there was something about "the world is out there" and I can connect through writing.

So can you be a Mormon and a feminist?

One can, indeed. And what I think is fascinating is that when people think of Mormons they tend to think of Orrin Hatch. But now we've got Harry Reid. It's possible to be Democrat and a Mormon.

You've said you're an evangelist for history. What do you mean?

That means I think everyone should know about their past. About their family history and about their neighborhood history. And they should save their old wringer washing machine!

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