Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: How a quiet professor became an unlikely hero for feminists

Historians in the News

When Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote her first scholarly article 30 years ago — an examination of funeral sermons for women in Colonial America — she never expected that a line from the opening paragraph would become a rallying cry for feminists.

You've seen the slogan on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and coffee mugs: "Well-behaved women seldom make history." It has been adopted as the official maxim of a raunchy, comic feminist group and used on the best-selling products of One Angry Girl Designs, an online company that fights pornography and violence against women.

It's a call to be wild and act up — to stop being seen but not heard. And it's earning Ms. Ulrich about $1,000 a year in royalties.

The irony, though, is that Ms. Ulrich herself could not be better behaved.

She is a Mormon, who spent her 20s and 30s as a faculty wife and mother of five children. She sewed quilts, made bread, and bottled pears, all while taking one course at a time toward her master's degree and then a doctorate in history. She is an accidental academic whose unconventional career path has landed her at the nation's most prominent university.

In January Ms. Ulrich, 67, was named one of only 19 distinguished university professors at Harvard University. It hired her 10 years ago after her historical tale of a New England midwife won a Pulitzer.

"I didn't expect to even have a career," says Ms. Ulrich. "It's a fairy tale, so I hate to tell people because it's not something that typically happens. I realize it sounds like a Cinderella story."

An Unlikely Feminist

Ms. Ulrich is a fifth-generation Mormon from a prosperous Utah family, whose parents settled in Sugar City, Idaho. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, men are encouraged to "preside" over their families, and women are prohibited from entering the priesthood or leading congregations. But Ms. Ulrich's parents always encouraged her to pursue higher education and explore her talent for writing.

As a teenager she submitted poems to Seventeen magazine, and it eventually commissioned her to write a short essay called "Sugar City Magic" about how her family celebrated Christmas. She was an English major at the University of Utah by the time the essay was published. When she graduated in 1960, she was married and four months pregnant with her first child.

Ms. Ulrich was a high achiever at Utah — a prizewinning debater who ranked at the top of her class. But like most young women in the early 1960s, particularly Mormon ones, she took a pass on a career. She followed her husband, Gael Ulrich, to Cambridge, where he enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

During the decade the family first lived in Cambridge, Ms. Ulrich was a typical young Mormon stay-at-home mother. But the women's movement did not pass her by. She helped start a consciousness-raising group for intellectual Mormon women who called themselves feminists — something Ms. Ulrich acknowledges sounds like an oxymoron.

The women discussed their obligations as wives and mothers, but also their intellectual ideas. And they launched a quarterly feminist newspaper, called Exponent II, that is still in print....

Read entire article at Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education

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