Latter-day Saint History

“Well-behaved women seldom make history”: The Woman Behind the Quote

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is much more than just a popular bumper sticker.

Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is well-known because of her famous quote, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” But Ulrich is much more than just a popular bumper sticker. For example, she’s also the author of A House Full of Females. In this interview. Laurel Thatcher-Ulrich talks about her backstory.

Who is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich?

I have probably always been interested in history because I grew up in a family that told stories and came of age in the church when doing family history was emphasized.  I didn’t begin to study history formally until the early 1970s when I took a course in the historical writings of early America at the University of New Hampshire after reading an interesting article by the professor who was teaching it.

My father was a teacher and later superintendent of schools in our small town so education was emphasized and exemplified in my family.  We didn’t have a huge library, but we had books and magazines and we used the school library I our town.

My father was as supportive of my sister and I in school as our brothers, and he actually pioneered in his support for women teachers.  I remember him working out a deal where two women with children split a job teaching English and French because they didn’t want to work full-time.  One of those teachers became a major influence on my life.

In the 70s, long after I left home, my father expressed skepticism about the feminist movement as he understood it, saying ,“Those women wanted to be men.”

But I never heard him disparage  the professional women he worked with as a member of the Idaho State Board of Education, he was always proud of my writing (and wanted me to be sure to use my maiden name so people would know I was his daughter), so I think I just brushed off any remarks he made about feminists in general.

You once considered a thesis on Latter-day Saint history but went in another direction in part because you lived so far from the archives. Would your decision have been any different if you had access to the online resources available today?

Perhaps.  But the bigger issue was having an adviser who knew something about western history.

I was strongly influenced by the strength of Early American History at UNH and quickly realized that if I was going to invest time in getting a Ph.D. I needed to work with the strongest faculty in the department.

Richard Bushman initially advised Laurel Thatcher Ulrich not to pursue a Ph.D. because he felt it would ruin her writing style. Did she ever talk with him about that?

Dick wasn’t the only one who saw me as more of a popular writer than a scholar. I don’t think his comment was sexist, but the advice I got from one of my undergraduate professors reflected common ideas of the time.  “Your business is to delight,” he said.

One of my UNH mentors even suggested (at a dinner after I successfully defended my dissertation) that it would be nice if I got a job but that it was more important that his male students did so because that was part of their “identity.”  For me it was optional.

I was horrified at the time, but was too polite to say anything.

He always supported my work.  That wasn’t the issue.  He thought that as a married woman, I didn’t really need to support my self.  His own wife worked collaboratively with him and he must have considered a viable option for a woman with children.  Unfortunately, my husband was an engineer!  We wouldn’t have made a very good scholarly team!

What is the origin for Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s quote, “Well-behaved women seldom make history”?

It came from the opening paragraph of an article on Puritan funeral sermons published in American Quarterly in 1976. It escaped into popular culture in the 1990s after my work became better known.

I thought it was amusing, but after getting lots of inquiries from all sorts of people I decided to explore it in more detail in my third book, a sort of survey of women’s history everywhere in the world and in every historical period!

It was fun to work on that book, which grew out of my teaching.  I’m not sure my effort to complicate people’s notions of which women were and were not “well-behaved” was entirely successful, but the opening history in the book has been used as a writing sample in some advanced placement courses.  This book allowed me to do some more expansive and playful than my more focused micro-histories.

In your essay, you say that when Latter-day Saints write about Latter-day Saints they run the risk of being perceived as apologists. Has this reality ever manifested itself in you leaving things out of your work you would otherwise include — simply to avoid being perceived in a manner different from your intentions?

I try very hard to apply the same scholarly standards to my writing about Mormonism as to my writing about any other subject.

If I am concerned about my own blind spots or biases, I enlist the help of readers I trust — my own husband, members of my scholarly community, and friends who are not scholars or who work in different fields.

But I never intentionally “mask” my Mormonism or my religious beliefs.

What is feminism?

Feminism is simply a belief in the equality of the sexes, and a willingness to challenge practices or attitudes that restrict opportunities for women or diminish their accomplishments.

What would Laurel Thatcher Ulrich say to men who sincerely want to read feminist authors but feel a measure of discomfort for reasons they cannot identify?

I’d tell them to “get over it.” They have nothing to lose but their own insecurities.

How do historical findings correspond with religious beliefs?

Mormonism is a vibrant and dynamic faith.  In my view, it is enriched rather than diminished by a serious engagement with history. If historical findings fail to “correspond” to religious beliefs, the solution is to investigate both.

Sometimes it is our beliefs that need examining.  A house built on sand cannot stand.

What is one of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s favorite Latter-day Saint history books published in the past five years?

Without question, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, edited by Jill Mulvay Derr, Carol Cornwall Madsen, Kate Holbrook, and Matthew J. Grow.

This is a scholarly work, long in its development, that not only has the potential to transform our understanding of the past but if used with inspiration might lay the foundation for a reinvigorated understanding of church leadership.

If Laurel Thatcher Ulrich could go back in time and give her 18-year-old self a message, what would it be?

I actually think my 18-year-old self was doing fine.  If I could back and give her a message, I would thank her for spending as much time as she did attending church and taking classes at the LDS Institute at the University of Utah.  The lessons I heard and the courses I took from master teachers like Lowell Bennion and T. Edgar Lyon continue to sustain my faith and shape my religious outlook.

If I had the chance, I might, however offer some advice to my 30-year-old self:  “Stop worrying so much and have more fun!”

Further reading

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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