Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher 1938–

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Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher 1938–


Born July 11, 1938, in Sugar City, ID; married a chemical engineer, 1958; children: five. Education: University of Utah, B.A., 1960; Simmons College, M.A., 1971; University of New Hampshire, Ph.D., 1980.


Office—History Department, Robinson Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138.


Worked as an instructor in English, 1972-73, and an instructor in history, 1976-80; University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH, 1980-95, began as assistant professor, became professor of history; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History and director of Charles Warren Center of Studies in American History, 1995—.


Organization of American Historians, Mormon Historical Association, National Women Studies Association.


Bancroft Prize and Pulitzer Prize for history, Columbia University, 1991, both for A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812.


(With others) A Beginner's Boston, Cambridge Ward Relief Society (Cambridge, MA), 1970.

Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, Knopf (New York, NY), 1982.

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.

(With Emma Lou Thayne) All God's Critters Got a Place in the Choir, Aspen Books (Salt Lake City, UT), 1995.

The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.

Yards and Gates: Gender in Harvard and Radcliffe History, Palgrave Macmillan (New York, NY), 2004.

Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah, Olympus Publications, 1976 and 1979. Also contributor of articles on history to periodicals, including Feminist Studies.


A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 was adapted by writer-producer Laurie Kahn-Levitt into a documentary directed by Richard P. Rogers and broadcast by PBS in 1998.


Pulitzer and Bancroft prize-winning author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has written several books that chronicle early American life. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 reflects her desire to refute commonly held attitudes about colonial women. Relying on court records, probate inventories, papers, and diaries from the colonial period, Good Wives demonstrates that the women of this time led multifaceted and demanding lives. Examining the many tasks that women performed in the 1700s—childbearing, churchgoing, and the trading and selling of goods—Ulrich stresses that women played a key role in the economic and social structures of eighteenth-century family life. The harsh demands of colonial living and the Puritan idea of spiritual equality in marriage contributed to a society that offered women richly varied roles.

Good Wives received favorable reviews from several critics. Writing in Kliatt, Barbara A. Dargatz called it "a very complete book and an excellent source document for the role of women in seventeenth and eighteenth century history." New York Times Book Review critic Martha Bayles wrote that by "focusing exclusively on female experience, [Ulrich] would rescue it from both the pedestal and the dustbin."

Ulrich followed Good Wives with A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. This book focuses on the life of Martha Moore Ballard, a colonial midwife and mother of nine from Hallowell, Maine, who kept a diary for twenty-seven years. Neglected by historians and feminists who saw it as a simple recording of mundane domestic chores performed by women of Ballard's time, the diary lay unexamined in the Augusta, Maine, public library for years, until Ulrich rescued it from obscurity and brought her scholarly insight and interpretive skills to its study. "Bringing Martha Ballard's diary to light was an ingenious idea on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's part, a venture into bona fide women's studies that is expertly executed and endlessly interesting," wrote Florence King in the Washington Post. According to Washington Post writer Charles Trueheart, Ulrich contends that Ballard's diary entries reveal important economic, social, and medical practices of colonial New Englanders. She argues that "women contributed significantly to the economy in all kinds of ways," noting that midwives such as Ballard were paid "tea kettles, lumber credits, cheese and butter, [and] turkeys" for their services. Because midwifery "was the best paid of the female occupations of the period," Ulrich offers proof that Ballard earned a considerable income and that women were important contributors to the family economy.

At the same time, medical procedures were intertwined with social relationships. As Ulrich shows, women of Ballard's era practiced "a social-based system of healing in which people who had an inclination or an aptitude were called in by their neighbors." Ballard recorded that midwifery was a community activity, performed with many women observing and lending their support. Midwifery allowed women simultaneously to socialize and to practice medicine. Playing the roles of "pharmacist, nurse, [and] mortician," women were the main medical practitioners in rural communities similar to Ballard's. Ulrich, as Trueheart noted, claims that Ballard's diary is "loaded with detail about obstetrics," and that her medical achievements compared favorably with those of a nineteenth-century doctor and an early-twentieth-century Portsmouth, New Hampshire, hospital. In nearly the 1,000 births that she attended as a midwife, Ballard encountered just fourteen stillbirths to the doctor's thirty-six, while the Portsmouth hospital stillbirth rates were five times higher than Ballard's. Her skills were so proficient that she achieved a lower rate of maternal deaths from childbirth than did the United States as a whole as late as 1930. The detailed accounts of childbirths and the legal facts that Ballard was obliged to record as a midwife provide the modern-day historian with excellent information on illegitimate births of the period. Blending Ballard's revelations of social and medical practices, Ulrich forms a clear picture of what colonial Americans emphasized in their marital relationships—sex rather than romance. About thirty-eight percent of the 814 Ballard-attended births were the result of extramarital conception, reports Ulrich.

Several critics praised A Midwife's Tale for its medical, social, and historical insight into colonial American life. "Medical historians will especially appreciate the identification of the wide variety of medicinal ingredients mentioned in the diary and Ulrich's painstaking analyses of their uses," commented Carol F. Karlsen in Journal of American History. Marie Marmo Mullaney, in Library Journal, called the book "social history at its best." And Carl N. Degler, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called Ulrich "a truly talented historian [who] unravels out of those hard knots of recorded fact the fascinating life of a community that in its complexity is at once so foreign, and yet so similar, to our own. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wears her learning lightly and her prose sings."

In The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth, Ulrich examines handmade household goods such as spinning wheels, cabinets, baskets, and textiles from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century to determine what they tell the modern world about the people who made and used them, and how such goods figure in American memory. "Examining such diverse items as an unfinished stocking, a silk embroidery, and a flamboyantly decorated wooden cupboard, [Ulrich] considers the relations between English settlers and the neighboring tribes, the evolution of household production from a male to a female economy, and the construction of identity," reported a Kirkus Reviews contributor, adding that the author also provides "a glimpse into nineteenth-century society's ambivalence toward the Industrial Revolution." In the mid-nineteenth century, when such items began to be mass-produced, a nostalgia for the "age of homespun" developed; a Publishers Weekly reviewer observed that Ulrich "has not set out to deflate [this] sentimentality … but rather to trace its genesis and understand how it has weathered the test of time." Boston Globe contributor Michael Kenney praised Ulrich's approach, noting that the historical connections she draws from commonplace materials "are the more fascinating the smaller and more ordinary the object." Each of Ulrich's investigations into an object's significance "reads like a well-crafted detective story," remarked Barbara Jacobs in Booklist. The Publishers Weekly critic thought general readers may find the book "frustratingly diffuse," although history buffs "will delight." Jacobs, though, deemed The Age of Homespun "an edifying, entertaining voyage for any reader," while the Kirkus Reviews writer commented that Ulrich has produced "another gem."

The title of Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History was taken from an article Ulrich published in 1976 as a graduate student. "Taken up as a feminist mantra by young activists, it started appearing online, then on T-shirts," wrote Amy E. Schwartz in the Wilson Quarterly. "Ulrich began to wonder what larger lesson she had stumbled on about her chosen work, the unearthing and teaching of women's history." The conclusion she arrived at in the book was that "women make history when they qualify for inclusion in the annals, often by defying convention, causing scandal, or in other ways misbehaving…. Women make history when they leave records or fashion narratives to explain the past," Elesh Coffman stated in Books & Culture. "These records and narratives, as Ulrich both asserts and models in her own writing, are not just ‘history as usual.’ They are so potentially subversive that even penning them can be viewed as a species of protest." "Whether scripted as ‘angels in the house’ or slandered as whores for the sexual freedom that enhances a man's prowess," Kathryn Harris stated in the New York TimesBook Review, "women continue to struggle against the restrictions of patriarchy." "As much invention as discovery," explained Harris, "history attempts to make the chaotic present into a coherent picture by comparing it to images, equally artificial, fashioned from events long past."

The author uses the works of three feminist writers (French poet Christine de Pizan, American political advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and English novelist Virginia Woolf) as a springboard to examine the ways that "well-behaved" women have in fact affected history. To do this, she turns to the relatively new fields of microhistory and women's history, closely studying surviving sources to extract the hidden stories concealed within them. Ulrich focuses her "attention [on] the expansion of this field of study," Susanne Markgren declared in Library Journal, "and its influence on a whole new generation of feminists and scholars." In the end, wrote Booklist contributor Donna Seaman, the author changes her "famous bon mot: ‘Well-behaved women make history when they do the unexpected, when their actions produce records, and when later generations care.’"



Biography, fall, 2007, "Women in History," p. 723.

Booklist, October 15, 2001, Barbara Jacobs, review of The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth, p. 379; September 1, 2007, Donna Seaman, review of Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History, p. 30.

Books & Culture, March 1, 2008, "Ain't Misbehavin': Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich Raises Eyebrows, Demurely."

Boston Globe, November 27, 2001, Michael Kenney, "The Stories That Household Objects Tell," p. E2.

Journal of American History, March, 1991, Carol F. Karlsen, review of A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, pp. 1339-1340.

Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2001, review of The Age of Homespun, p. 1411.

Kliatt, winter, 1984, Barbara A. Dargatz, review of Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, p. 52.

Library Journal, March 15, 1990, Marie Marmo Mullaney, review of A Midwife's Tale, p. 102; May 1, 2004, R.B.M. Gallop, review of Yards and Gates: Gender in Harvard and Radcliffe History, p. 132; August 1, 2007, Susanne Markgren, review of Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History, p. 102.

New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1982, Martha Bayles, review of Good Wives, p. 12; March 4, 1990, pp. 12-13; November 11, 2001, John Demos, "The Stuff of Legend: Artifacts of American Material Culture Are Windows on the Past—and on Our Romanticization of the Past," p. 11; September 30, 2007, "We're No Angels," p. 13.

Publishers Weekly, October 1, 2001, review of The Age of Homespun, p. 46; July 9, 2007, review of Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History, p. 43.

Washington Post, March 5, 1990, Florence King, "The Midwife's History," p. D3; April 10, 1991, Charles Trueheart, "The Arts of the Pulitzer Winners: Laurel Ulrich, Giving Birth to History," pp. B1, B11.

Wilson Quarterly, January 1, 2008, "The Vice Squad," p. 100.


Harvard University, History Department Web site, http://www.courses.fas.harvard.edu/ (June 17, 2008), author profile.