I recently had the privilege to interview Laurel Thatcher Ulrich for “10 questions.” She is a noted historian who teaches at Harvard University and has an essay in “To Be Learned is Good: Essays on Faith and Scholarship in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman.”
Kurt Manwaring: Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first got interested in history?
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.
Kurt Manwaring: As a young woman, your father encouraged your appetite for learning but later found your study of feminism puzzling. Could you share some memories of your father’s influence and how you reconciled his differing viewpoints later in life?
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: You once considered a thesis on Mormon 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?
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: Richard Bushman initially advised you not to pursue a Ph.D. because he felt it would ruin your writing style. Did you ever talk with him later in your career about the way your doctorate affected your style?
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: 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!
Kurt Manwaring: A popular phrase owes its creation to you: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” What was the original context of this quote and how did you feel when you first realized it was gaining a life of its own?
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: In your essay, you say that when Mormons write about Mormons 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?
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: What is feminism?
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: What would you say to men who sincerely want to read feminist authors but feel a measure of discomfort for reasons they cannot identify?
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: I’d tell them to “get over it.” They have nothing to lose but their own insecurities.
Kurt Manwaring: Religious believers can sometimes see history as a threat to their faith. What are your thoughts on how historical findings correspond with religious beliefs?
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: What is one of your favorite books on Mormon history that has been published in the past five years?
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: 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.
Kurt Manwaring: If you could go back in time and give a message to your 18-year-old self, what would you say and why?
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: 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!”