The phrase “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” is often used to justify weekend Facebook photos, but many do not know that these words originated in an article about Puritan funeral services by a University of New Hampshire grad student who is now an accomplished Harvard professor. Indeed, Pulitzer Prize-winning Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the History Department’s 300th Anniversary University Professor and the current president of the American Historical Association, recently received the John F. Kennedy Medal of the Massachusetts Historical Society, becoming the first woman to do so. FM got the chance to speak with her about her latest award, her career as an historian, and her love of the seemingly mundane.
Fifteen Minutes: Where were you when you heard you won the award?
Laurel T. Ulrich: This just came in a letter. I’m a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society. I don’t think I even was aware of this award, but I got a very nice letter from the director asking me if I would accept.
FM: You have written that you knew you wanted to be a writer since the fifth grade. What made you choose historical writing?
LTU: It was really an accident. The main reason is that I came to New England in 1960. It was saturated with a sense of history, and in order to understand where I was, I needed to learn more about the place. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about becoming an historian. I had done a master’s degree in English. When I moved to New Hampshire, I took a history course for my own edification. [The professor] really thought of history as a form of literature. I was interested in history and suddenly I realized that my ambition to write could come together with that.
FM: You generally focus on early American history. What made you interested in this period?
LTU: It was really serendipity. I was at the University of New Hampshire, and the strength in the history department there was in the early period. I loved it because it was remote. It forced me to think about worlds that were very different from the world that I knew.
FM: You hail from a small town in the Rocky Mountain West. How has that shaped your view as an historian?
LTU: Part of my life experience has been about being sort of an outsider, a little awkward in some very sophisticated venues. I was conscious that my experience was kind of invisible in that world. And as a woman, I learned to define myself as separate from [the] world of academia and scholarship, even as I was doing well. Coming into my scholarship through the women’s movement and also through my life experience has made me hypersensitive to issues of marginality.
FM: Do you still feel marginalized?