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?
LTU: Oh no. I’m president of the American Historical Association. I remember I had a funny experience after the Pulitzer was announced in 1991. I got a phone call from a reporter from The New York Times asking about the impact of my work on the historical profession. I said, “I’ve always thought of my work [as] being marginal.” And I remember he told me, “I think you’re going to have to get over that.”
FM: Your work tends to focus on “ordinary” people and “ordinary” objects. You wrote an entire book about an obscure 18th century midwife and another on baskets, spinning wheels, rugs, and other common household objects. What interests you about the ordinary?
LTU: I am interested in ordinary objects partly because they’re not supposed to be interesting. I think I’m contrary that way.
[Editor’s note: the FM reporter was wearing a green scarf at the time of the interview]
I mean, why should we care about your scarf. It probably came from India. If it did, there’s a whole history about global trade and the transfers. There’s a history about dyes. Now you’ve got me curious. There’s nothing out there that doesn’t have a story attached to it, and it makes the world a more dynamic and interesting place.
FM: Yet, your latest book, entitled “Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History” focuses on three female heroes. Why the switch from the ordinary to the heroic?
LTU: That book grew out of my teaching at Harvard. Some of the books that I used [in a course I taught on the history of feminism] helped to shape this most recent book. But as you read further, you realize it’s not just about these women. Their stories take me into something broader. We learn about runaway slaves, about common people making textiles or baskets, about women’s work in medieval Europe.
FM: In many of your works, you use everyday objects to provide glimpses into earlier times. If someone were to tell the story of your life, what object would they use as a lens?
LTU: I guess they could start with a bronze baby shoe that my mother had made. It was kind of common in the early 20th century—preserving the babyhood by bronzing the baby shoe. The story of my life starts with my coming into a family that cared about me and supported me.
FM: If a historian 100 years down the road examined the objects in your purse, what would they say about you and the society you live in?
LTU: They would find a lot of Kleenex. So, we were a throw away society. It would be kind of disturbing as one thinks about how much trash we accumulated and how profligate we were about material things.
FM: In a scholarly article about Puritan funeral services, you used the phrase “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” The slogan took off—you can now see it on bumper stickers, T-shirts, mugs, posters aimed at the preteen set. Have you ever run into anyone sporting your logo?
LTU: Many, many times. I have a little collection. My friends tell me of sightings of the slogan in the South of France or wherever they find it.
FM: Would you, a woman who has made history, say you are “well-behaved”?
LTU: It depends on whom you ask. Some people think I’m boringly well-behaved and some probably think I’m a bit of a rabble-rouser. I helped organize the faculty union, and some thought I was not well=behaved in doing that. But I’ve been married to the same man for 51 years, and that’s pretty well-behaved, I think.
FM: You have written a lot about being a Mormon feminist. How has being a Mormon shaped the way you view history and your feminism?
LTU: I think it’s had a tremendous impact. Coming from a minority religious culture that emphasizes the value of the ordinary person and the everyday life and doesn’t celebrate being rich and famous has a lot to do with my orientation historically. Mormon women have had a very colorful and controversial history and that is a lot of what has interested me.
FM: You have been involved in the feminist movement for decades. What would you say about the future of feminism?
LTU: I can see a lot of transformation in American life. But, if you look worldwide and you see the impact of poverty and global change, you see women getting a disproportionate share of some of these global problems. In no sense can we say these issues are passé or no longer significant.
FM: You teach a freshman seminar about quilt making. Are you an avid quilt maker?
LTU: I have made quilts—I confess to that—not very complex ones, but I’ve made a lot of them. I’ve done enough sewing to appreciate fabulous work. I don’t do fabulous work, but I can enjoy it.
FM: In a 2002 issue of The Journal of American History, you wrote, “My writing moved in two directions, one activist and personal, the other academic.” How do you balance the personal and the scholarly?
I compartmentalized for a long time. A lot of my activism was within my own faith community and people in that community didn’t know much about my scholarly pursuits. As I’ve gotten older, I see the work I do as a scholar as being my best contribution to the larger enterprise of advancing the place of women. History is one of the primary ways people create a sense of themselves, their identities, and their place in the world. I’ve also come to be more of a scholar partly because I think that’s my calling, if you want to use the Puritan concept.