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Ulrich touts women in history

1991 Pulitzer Prize winner to lecture at U. and Salt Lake library

Writer Laurel Thatcher Ulrich graduated from the University of Utah. She is the first woman to have served on Harvard's faculty.
Writer Laurel Thatcher Ulrich graduated from the University of Utah. She is the first woman to have served on Harvard's faculty.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Here's the question: Is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich better known for winning the 1991 Pulitzer Prize in history for "A Midwife's Tale," or for originating the popular phrase, "Well-behaved women seldom make history"?

She wrote the latter statement in a scholarly article about women in history in 1976 — and the phrase has appeared on T-shirts, placards, placemats, mugs, bumper stickers and greeting cards throughout the country, sometimes with attribution and sometimes without.

"It was a weird escape into popular culture," Ulrich said by phone from her home in Cambridge, Mass. "I got constant e-mails about it, and I thought it was humorous. Then I started looking at where it was coming from. Once I turned up as a character in a novel — and a tennis star from India wore the T-shirt at Wimbledon. It seemed like a teaching moment — and so I wrote a book using the title."

Ulrich did not intend the book as "a work of original scholarship" but as a way of "sharing with young people my thoughts about what it takes for women to make history."

So she has written about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton from the 19th century women's movement; Harriet Tubman and other African-American women; Betty Friedan, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King for their 20th century contributions.

She also treats Virginia Woolf, 15th-century writer Christine de Pizan, Amazons, Shakespeare's daughters and gifted painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

The book is a delight to read and is in no way limited to scholars, even though Ulrich has employed strict scholarly methods in writing it. It's a book about how history is made and how women have to decide what matters most, as opposed to what is proper.

It is Ulrich's opinion that women's history has become "very sophisticated — mainstream. We tend to see men and women as players now. The raw material is there. People used to say you can't include women in survey courses in American history because we don't know enough information about them. That argument doesn't work any more."

Ulrich has found that, "It is much more common to integrate men and women in major universities than it used to be. The 'male universal' is still there — but it's harder to get away with that in academic life.

"In some ways, the 19th century was the century of women. Some historians have argued that from the Civil War onward, women's politics drove everything forward. Drew Faust, Harvard's new president, has a book coming out making that case."

Ulrich has had a highly unusual career. She raised a family as a traditional mother, then went back to school for a doctorate in history, and is now the first woman to have served as a member of the Harvard History faculty. Now in her 60s, she considers herself to be "young, careerwise."

She may do another book on material culture, i.e., "the history of the world through the patchwork quilt, in which you consider domestic, literary, arts, labor, etc.

"I'm also thinking of doing a Mormon book. I like reading Wilford Woodruff's diary. He spent 18 months in Cambridge. And I'm interested in John A. Widtsoe, who wrote a memoir about coming to Harvard in 1890. I'm interested in Cache Valley — there is lots of work to be done in Mormon history."

Ulrich is a member of the LDS Church, who was raised in Idaho and educated in Utah, getting her B.A. from the University of Utah. But her writing in Mormonism has been mostly restricted to such Mormon journals as Dialogue: Journal of Mormon Thought, and Exponent II (a revival of the Woman's Exponent, a Mormon women's newspaper published in 19th-century Utah).

"It would have been a disaster if I had gone into academic life earlier than I did," said Ulrich. "When I studied English, the literary canon was very male. If I'd gone to graduate school right out of college, I would have found I wasn't ready. Harvard has never been a great place for women.

"I feel that I came into the academy through the back door as a faculty wife. (Her husband is retired as a University of New Hampshire professor.) It allowed me to be more innovative than if I had been building a career."

Ulrich is grateful for the perspective she gained "as a wife, mother and church worker. No one could make me believe that women were insignificant. I saw it every day. The things women did mattered. Women were smart. That fueled my interest in feminism. When I became an academic, I had an outsider's perspective, meaning I didn't have to take it seriously all the time, to be contrarian."

She is convinced that midcareer changes are healthy. "You remake yourself at midpoint. It's exciting for both men and women."

If you go ...

What: O. Meredith Wilson History Lecture: "A Woman and a Cow," Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Where: Dumke Auditorium, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, University of Utah

When: Thursday, 4:30 p.m.

What: Book Festival Lecture: "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History," Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Where: Salt Lake City Main Library Auditorium

When: Saturday, 5 p.m.

How much: free

Phone: 359-9670