Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: Helping revolutionize women's history





[Megan Marshall's biography The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism won the Francis Parkman Prize and the Mark Lynton History Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography and memoir.]

At about the same time I was taping up cardboard boxes in Berkeley [at the Women's History Research Center (1976)], Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who'd graduated from her own version of WHRC —the Mormon Sisters Inc., of Arlington, Mass., which put out a feminist newsletter celebrating the accomplishments of early Mormon women—to a Ph.D. program at the University of New Hampshire, published her first scholarly article. The article, "Virtuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735,"—which appeared in American Quarterly, the 27-year-old journal of the American Studies Association—grew out of Ulrich's desire "to know more about ordinary women." She had mined Puritan funeral sermons for evidence about women whose lives had otherwise gone unrecorded. "Well-behaved women seldom make history," she noted in her opening paragraph, in explanation of her difficulty locating sources.

Ulrich went on to write three impeccably researched books—Good Wives (1982), A Midwife's Tale (winner of a Pulitzer in history in 1991), and The Age of Homespun (2001)—each one using new and ingenious methods to document the lives of "well-behaved" women. She also became a tenured professor in Harvard's formerly all-male history department. Meanwhile, that one-liner from her first article took on a life of its own, ironically seeming to endorse an entirely different, activist style of history-making from the quiet, quotidian one Ulrich preferred to write about.

The sentence "escaped into popular culture," Ulrich writes in her new book by that title, after journalist Kay Mills used it as an epigraph in her survey of American women's history, From Pocahontas to Power Suits (1995). From there, the sentence made its way onto T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, and bumper stickers, where it "now keeps company with anarchists, hedonists, would-be witches, political activists of many descriptions"—the spiritual daughters of Laura X—along with "quite a few well-behaved women." It is a motto that has been embraced by, among others, nurses, school teachers, women in retirement homes, and a network of quilters based in Puyallup, Wash., who, according to their T-shirt-dealing spokeswoman, "see themselves as a little outrageous and naughty and out-of-control with their hobby."...

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