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Mixing Faith and Feminism

Facing the Faculty

By Elizabeth T. Bangs

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich identifies herself a "Mormon feminist."

On the surface that label seems a bit of an oxymoron; the Mormon church is not well known for liberal attitudes toward women or politics.

But Ulrich, who joined the Harvard Faculty this fall as Phillips Professor of Early American History and Professor of Women's Studies, points out that in 1870 Utah women--the majority of whom were Mormon--became the first American women to vote.

Granting women the vote was an official part of the church doctrine during the mid-1800s, says Ulrich, who is currently teaching Women's Studies 10a: "Roots of Modern Feminism."

"The church has become much more conservative and mainstream. Part of my awakening as a feminist was to discover a part of my culture and of my people that was feminist."

But, Ulrich acknowledges, "In general, [as a feminist] I'm a minority within a minority."

And that isn't always easy. Twenty years ago, Ulrich was one of a group of Mormon women who founded a feminist newspaper, Explorer II. Church leaders did not enthusiastically accept the journal, she adds.

She credits much of her feminist ideology within the church to living in New England.

"The Mormon community is just much more liberal in the Northeast," Ulrich says. "I'm really not so strange here."

Still, Ulrich's "strangeness" has allowed her to become a renowned expert on early American women. In the 35 years since she earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Utah in 1960, Ulrich raised five children who now range in age from 20 to 35.

Her 1980 Ph.D. in history from the University of New Hampshirecame after more than 20 years of juggling studying and family and a switch from English to history.

"I was left alone to do my strange research because people though, 'She can do that. She's a mother. If she wants to write about domestic life in the 18th century, that's all right,'" Ulrich says. "Had I been a single woman or a married man, I might have been steered away [from that topic]."

When she entered Simmons College in 1971 as the mother of several young children, Ulrich says she probably had fewer career options. But, she adds, her roundabout route to a Harvard professorship has paid off.

"There weren't many things students did that I hadn't seen before," Ulrich says. "I think maturity is a good thing in the humanities."

Five years ago, Ulrich wrote A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, which won her the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1991.

"What I've experienced is an incredible kind of support from women who aren't scholars," Ulrich says. "It's been seen as proof of the ability to produce quality work without fitting into the full-time professional model from age 22."

Currently at work on a social history of early American textile production, Ulrich says she is still adjusting to life at Harvard after having taught at the University of New Hampshire for the last 15 years. "I feel very much like a freshman," she says.

"It's quite a contrast to the University of New Hampshire. [Harvard is] is much more cosmopolitan place," she says, adding that the campus makes her wish for a map and some directions.

Still, Ulrich says she is not intimidated but exhilarated. "I never anticipated [teaching at Harvard]," Ulrich says. "It's a fascinating place. I'm delighted to be here."

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