Laurel Thatcher Ulrich Answers Ten Questions

Midwife's Tale

She has won every award that an American historian can win.  When this post goes live, I will be sitting in a classroom with eighty United States history survey students watching “A Midwife’s Tale,” a movie based on her book by the same name.

Kurt Manwaring recently asked Laurel Thatcher Ulrich ten questions.  Here is a taste:

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 advise 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 tht 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!

Read the entire interview here.


2017 Princeton Seminar: Day 5

Rare Books 1

Princeton rare books librarian Eric White breaks out a first-edition collection of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry and the teachers transform into the paparazzi

It was another busy day at the Gilder-Lehrman Institute‘s “Colonial Era” teacher seminar at Princeton University.  We covered a lot of ground yesterday and traveled through three different regions of British colonial America:

  1. We started the day discussing women and dissent in colonial New England.  We talked about Anne Hutchinson and the “Good Wives” made famous by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
  2.  We had a great day in Philadelphia on Wednesday.  On Thursday we discussed Philadelphia in the larger context of the Middle Colonies with a specific focus on Pennsylvania as a Quaker and liberal colony.
  3.  After lunch we discussed the emergence of slave culture in the rice fields of colonial South Carolina.

We ended the day in the Firestone Library’s Rare Books Department where curator Eric White showed the teachers a host of first editions from the 17th and 18th centuries.  We got to see a copy of John Eliot’s Algonquian Bible and works by William Penn, Cotton Mather, John Locke, George Whitefield, Phillis Wheatley, Samuel Richardson, Laurence Stern, Addison and Steele, and others.  It is always fun to watch the teachers’ eyes light-up as they are exposed to these books.

One more day left!

Rare Books 2

Notes were taken


Laurel Thatcher Ulrich Describes Her Journey From Mormon Motherhood to the Halls of Harvard

I love reading biographies and autobiographies of historians and other academics.  I have been teaching Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s movie (based on her Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title) “A Midwife’s Tale” for probably fifteen years.  It works very well with students taking the United States history survey course.  I have also used Ulrich’s Good Wives several times in my colonial America course.  She is one of my favorite historians.

I was thus pleased to see this interview with Ulrich at The Harvard Gazette.  Over the course of the interview she describes her unorthodox journey into the profession and how she conceived of several of her books.  Here is a taste:

UNH had just hired faculty members specializing in early American history. That’s why I majored in early American history — because the best faculty were in that field. So it was Darrett Rutman and Charlie Clark: both former journalists who really cared about writing. They really encouraged me. They were both really terrific, really wonderful. But of course I couldn’t have done it, wouldn’t have done it, if I hadn’t had my women’s network — still in Boston, a lot of them. It was a very close network of good friends, and we continued to work on feminist stuff. Claudia Bushman got a Ph.D. at BU about the same time I was at UNH.
Q: What was that transition like in those days, from literature to history?
A: Charlie had an American studies degree, rather than a straight history degree. He had studied with Carl Bridenbaugh at Brown. Darrett was a hard-core social scientist in his approach to history, but a writer. The two of them really emphasized the literary side of history — history as writing — [but] their methodologies were totally different. Charlie was interested in historical literature and narrative, and he did more intellectual history. Darrett did a lot more quantification and social history. I really think working with the two of them made it possible for me to do what I did. I really got good training in social history and lots of nourishing in terms of writing history. It was a nice combination.

Women at Work in Massachusetts

Marla Miller of the University of Massachusetts has storified the tweets from the recent Massachusetts History Conference at Holy Cross College.  This year the theme was: “Never Done: Interpreting the History of Women at Work in Massachusetts” with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich as the keynote speaker.  In addition to presentations on women’s history, there were also sessions on archival resources, oral history, Wikipedia and activism.

My favorite tweet from the conference comes from Veronica Golden: “I’m convinced that Laurel Ulrich’s historical thinking is magical.”

Here are a few more:

Rachel Guadagni: “You need to know your past if you’re going to change your future.  Particularly if you’re going to change it for the better!”

Lauren: “87% of Wikipedia editors are men; only 13% are women”

Sarah Franke: “Women are more than 50% of history workforce.”

Brece Honeycutt: “Without humanities nothing can survive” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich”

Looks like it was a great conference.

The Midwife’s Tale at 20

If you are in the Worcester, MA area and are a big fan of the work of historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, head on over to the American Antiquarian Society for its 7th Annual Robert C. Baron Lecture.  Ulrich will be discussing her Pulitzer Prize winning A Midwife’s Tale.  Here is the press release from the AAS:

Thursday, October 21, at 7:30 p.m.
Reflections on A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
The Seventh Annual Robert C. Baron Lecture

The book A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 quickly became a model of social history when it was published in 1990. The book examines the life of one Maine midwife and provides a vivid examination of ordinary life in the early American republic, including the role of women in the household and local market economy, the nature of marriage, sexual relations, family life, aspects of medical practice, and the prevalence of crime and violence. The book won many awards including the Pulitzer Prize for History and the Bancroft Prize. A Midwife’s Tale was also developed into a film of the same name which aired on The American Experience television program.

The book even became the basis for a website called DoHistory ( The site invites you to explore the process of piecing together the lives of ordinary people in the past. It is an experimental, interactive case study based on the research that went into the book and film A Midwife’s Tale. The website aims to help users learn basic skills and techniques for interpreting fragments that survive from any period in history, and to become inspired by Martha Ballard’s story to do original research on other “ordinary” people from the past.

In tomorrow night’s lecture, Professor Ulrich reflects upon some of the scholarly, popular, and political responses to the book and considers its impact on her own more recent work. Further information, including directions, can be found on the Public Programs page on the AAS website.

Please note:

  • This lecture is part of the Antiquarian Society’s annual meeting, and it is anticipated that this will be a well-attended event by both the general public and AAS members alike. Unfortunately, our seating is limited. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m., so please plan accordingly.
  • The library will close early at 4:30 to set up for the lecture and will remain closed to the public Friday, October 22, for the Antiquarian Society’s annual meeting.

Laurel Ulrich Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University, where she teaches in the History Department. She is also the author of Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Early New England, 1650-1750 (1982); The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (2001); and Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History (2007).

Named in honor of Robert C. Baron, past AAS chairman and president of Fulcrum Publishing, the annual Baron Lecture asks distinguished AAS members who have written seminal works of history to reflect on one book and the impact it has had on scholarship and society in the years since its first appearance.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich on Historical Preservation

Noted early American historian and Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich spoke recently about the importance of historical preservation at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City. Here is a snippet from the Deseret News:

History is not what happened, it is an account of the past, based on surviving sources. If there are no sources, there is no history.”

In a sense, she said, that makes us all historians. “By caring for your things and the things of your ancestors, you contribute to a larger historic picture.”

Even the simplest objects can make a contribution, said Ulrich. “They connect to the past. They are a source of family and national pride. They reinforce family stories. They can surprise us, challenge us, force us to confront things we would just as soon not confront. Objects teach technology. They can inspire us as we make our own history, striking out in our own circumstances, in our own way.”

So What CAN You Do With a History Major?: Part 14

In this segment of our series we are going to go in a slightly different direction. Our previous posts have focused on testimonials or research related to jobs that people with history degrees can do, have done, or are doing. We will continue in this stead in future posts, but today’s post is addressed to those readers who love history, but have chosen, for whatever reason, not to pursue their passion.

I want to call your attention to the December issue of Perspectives and an article entitled “The Trouble with History.” It is written by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and current president of the American Historical Association . (Anyone who has ever taken my United States survey course has seen her at work in
A Midwife’s Tale,” a documentary based on her award-winning book by the same title. Students in my colonial America courses have read her book, Good Wives).

The editors of Perspectives have written a summary of the article that really gets to the heart of it all: “This issue begins with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s valedictory column as president: “The Trouble with History.” In it she advocates listening to your instincts and following your drive, as a passion for history can transcend all challenges.

Here is a snippet of Ulrich’s article:

But if there is any moral to my story, it may be that your own instincts are a better guide than the words of your former teachers. The best clue to the future, though, is how you feel about what it is you do. Yes, grants and jobs matter. As professionals we need to do more to advocate for history and to support one another in our work. But we also need to ask ourselves what it is that drives us to study, teach, and write.

In “The Trouble with Poetry,” Billy Collins asks if the time will ever come when poets will have “compared everything in the world / to everything else in the world,” leaving them with nothing to do but sit at their desks with folded hands. He knows that won’t happen, and so do we. For those infected with the need to discover the past, there will always be mysteries pulling us through digital or archival darkness. That is why people with tenure as well as those without continue to write. Collins admits that though poetry fills him with joy and with sorrow, “mostly poetry fills me / with the urge to write poetry, / to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame / to appear at the tip of my pencil.” If you have discovered that flame, you will write history.

So what can you do with a history major? For some, it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes you just need to follow your passions.