Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 986

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich compares her career as a scholar and writer to a patchwork quilt. Her success has not resulted from any kind of deliberate plan, and she was forced to work with the materials that were at hand, but her life shows a definite pattern. She was born Laurel Thatcher in Sugar City, Idaho, a predominantly Mormon town; her family, the Thatchers, figured prominently in the community and had been among the original group of Mormon pioneers to settle the area. In her essay “Family Scriptures,” in Dialogue 20 (1987), she describes her Grandfather Thatcher as a “book of remembrance,” a source of stories and information about her family and her community. For her, his stories constituted “family scriptures,” in that they were sacred to her and to her family. She writes, “Scriptures clarify by sifting out eternal principles from the grainy confusion of ordinary life.” Her later work as a historian shows this same concern for the patterns that emerge from the “trivia” of ordinary life.{$S[A]Thatcher Ulrich, Laurel;Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher}

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Laurel Ulrich attended the University of Utah, where she studied English and excelled in debate, winning the western regional championship. She also met and married Gael Dennis Ulrich. As she and her husband pursued their academic careers, hers was interrupted by the birth of five children. She writes in her essay “Patchwork,” from All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir, that her career developed in a rather roundabout manner. In the 1970’s she found herself a “faculty wife” at the University of New Hampshire with an M.A. in English. She entered the Ph.D. program at New Hampshire in history and progressed from graduate student to part-time instructor to tenured professor. In 1995 she became James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History and director of the Charles Warren Center of Studies in American History at Harvard University. Her multiple roles as mother, wife, scholar, and dedicated Mormon made her progress slow, but her multiple roles also prepared her to enter into fields of scholarship that few others had previously considered or valued.

Ulrich’s work shows a concern for the importance of commonplace experience. Her first published work was A Beginner’s Boston, a book that claims to be the first guidebook to Boston. Although many writers contributed to the book, the preface acknowledges Laurel Ulrich as the “driving force” behind the project. The book itself is not as extraordinary as the manner in which it was written. A Beginner’s Boston began as a fund-raiser for the Relief Society of the Cambridge Ward, an “educational and charitable organization for Mormon women” for the local congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). The book resulted from the volunteer labor of a number of women and represents the kind of collaborative work by women that Ulrich examines among New England women during the colonial period in her two historical works, Good Wives and A Midwife’s Tale.

In Good Wives Ulrich contests common scholarly views on the lives of colonial women. She reconstructs the patterns of women’s lives from court records, probate inventories, diaries, and other documents to show that women during the period 1650 to 1750 participated in many more social roles than scholars had previously thought: housewife, deputy husband, consort, mother, mistress, neighbor, Christian, and heroine. To describe these roles, Ulrich uses three archetypal women from the Old Testament: Bathsheba, Eve, and Jael. Bathsheba represents the economic role of women, Eve represents sex and reproduction, and Jael relates to “the intersection between religion and aggression.”

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Ulrich is probably best known for A Midwife’s Tale. This work is based on the diary of Martha Moore Ballard, a colonial midwife and mother of nine from Hallowell, Maine. The diary covers twenty-seven years of Ballard’s career. Although previous historians had known of the diary, they dismissed it as “trivial” because it appeared to be a mere chronicle of the everyday tasks performed by colonial women. With her belief that nothing in the lives of women is trivial, Ulrich turned her attention to the diary and discovered the patterns reflected in the ordinary chores of women. She indicates how the activities recorded in Martha Ballard’s diary reveal important economic, social, and medical practices of the time.

Although Laurel Ulrich decided early in her career as a historian not to study Mormon history, she turned her remarkable critical skills to her own experience. For more than twenty years, Ulrich contributed essays to Exponent II, a Boston-based quarterly newspaper inspired by the nineteenth century Mormon women’s magazine Woman’s Exponent (1872-1914). Many of these essays are collected in All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir, written with the Mormon poet-essayist Emma Lou Thayne. As in her historical work, Ulrich examines the patterns that emerge in the everyday activities of Mormon women, in her own life and the lives of those around her. In “Seeing Without Seeing” she describes her memories of seeing Helen Keller at Salt Lake City’s Tabernacle. In “Improve the Shining Moments” she takes her inspiration from a popular Mormon hymn and talks about the importance of learning from the commonplace and ordinary. She describes her own experience learning to “read” cloth and realizing the tremendous number of patterns that can be constructed from “white” cloth. In “Ode to Autumn” Ulrich discusses her dual role as mother and scholar, and in “Border Crossings” she describes her often uncomfortable position as a “Mormon feminist.” (She had originally entitled this essay “Confessions of an OxyMormon.”) In The Age of Homespun, Ulrich used a set of seventeenth to nineteenth century handmade household objects as starting points for discussions of the realities of everyday life for the makers and owners of those objects. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has won numerous awards and fellowships for her work, including the Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Prize for history.

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