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Renaissance for women started in '60s, speaker says

The Renaissance wasn't a renaissance for women — that came much later when the feminist movement that began in the 1960s and flourished in the 1970s sparked changes in the way historians revisited historical archives to mine more information about women.

Illustrations of that process were the object of a lecture at the University of Utah Thursday by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, U. alumna and Harvard University history professor. Her presentation, "A Woman and a Cow: Celebrating a Renaissance in History," explored seven centuries of women's work and drew heavily on artists' depictions of women milking cows as examples of how that work represented the evolution of social themes and women's roles in Europe and then in America.

"We now know things that we didn't know we didn't know before," she said of the study of women's history. Excuses that historical source material about women did not exist have given way to new thinking and new ways of looking at historical material to draw out women's history.

"It's hard to remember how little was known, how little was taught about women in the universities," Ulrich said.

Some of the oldest images in her presentation had mythical and spiritual themes as their primary object but revealed much about women's societal roles. The most contemporary image she discussed wasn't a single piece of art but the collection of stories about Mrs. O'Leary, her infamous cow, Daisy, and the great Chicago fire, which contrasted the development of middle-class America with stigmas of a much-older European culture of the woman as milk maid.

"Even in the 1980s the Chicago Historical Society had images (of the Mrs. O'Leary episode), and in parades in Chicago, there would be someone imitating Mrs. O'Leary. She became the symbol of backwardness, immigration, lack of sanitation, when in her own story she was a symbol of really hard work."

One of the wonderful epiphanies of contemporary historical research is that material about women "really was there and waiting," but it took "asking new questions" to discover it and draw women's history out, she said.

Ulrich's presentation was cut short by computer problems that interrupted the display of the images her presentation was built on. The lecture was this year's O. Meredith Wilson Lecture, a 30-year-running series presented at the U.'s Museum of Fine Arts.

Ulrich's book "A Midwife's Tale," won the Pulitzer prize for History in 1991. She co-edited with Emma Lou Thayne a collection of essays about the lives of Mormon Women titled "All God's Critters Got a Place in the Choir." Ulrich's newest book, "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History," has just been published.


E-mail: sfidel@desnews.com