An Interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
When I first found out about Exponent II fifteen or so years ago, I began reading all the old editions of the paper I could get my hands on. I was starved for thoughtful, nuanced discussions of Mormonism and gender, and Exponent II satisfied that need. It also made me feel like I had finally found my people. Claudia Bushman, Judy Dushku, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, all founding members of Exponent II, became my Mormon feminist heroes. Eventually I heard about the wonderful All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir, a book of poems, essays and dialogues by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Pulitzer Prize winning historian, and Emma Lou Thayne, peace activist and poet. To this day I credit Ulrich’s “Lusterware” essay in this book with helping me wrap my head around the church, its fallibility, and my decisions to remain a (somewhat) practicing Mormon.
My favorite part of this “Lusterware” essay is when Ulrich writes about a young woman writing to her about her changing beliefs. This young woman wrote, “I used to think of the Church as one hundred percent true…. But now I realize it is probably ten percent human and ninety percent divine.” Ulrich writes, “I gasped, wanting to write back immediately, ‘If you find any earthly institution that is ten percent divine, embrace it with all your heart!’ Actually ten percent is probably too high an estimate.” That kind of pragmatism and perspective have helped me immeasurably.
LDS writer Kurt Manwaring recently interviewed Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, professor of history at Harvard, about her life and career. Below is an excerpt of this interview.
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.