July 11th in (Feminist) History

021640_laurelulrich_2-1On this day in 1938 was the birth of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a feminist and Mormon author who is perhaps most well known for originating the phrase, “well-behaved women seldom make history”. Laurel was born in Sugar City, Idaho, to Alice Siddoway Thatcher, and John Kenneth Thatcher, who was a teacher, superintendent, farmer, and state legislator. Her family was fifth-generation Mormon, and Laurel was considered a dutiful daughter. She graduated from the University of Utah with a BA in English and journalism, already married and pregnant by the time she finished. She and her husband moved east so that he could complete his graduate studies, and it was in their new home that Laurel began to make friends with other Mormon feminist writers.

Taking courses part time, she went on to earn a master’s in English from Simmons College, and then a doctorate in history from University of New Hampshire. Her well known line was originally included in an article she wrote in 1976 about Puritan funeral services; the sentence somehow caught on, to the point that it could be found on t-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, and more. Despite that popularity, it wasn’t until 2007 that she published a book inspired by the quote. The book, Well-Behaved Women, was about the many ways in which history had been shaped by women, and featured examples of women like Virginia Woolf, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Christine de Pizan.

Laurel also published a book called A Midwife’s Tale, which later won a Pulitzer Prize, and examined the life of people in the early American republic; especially that of women. It studied all sorts of aspects of life in those times, from violence and crime, to market economy, to medicine, marriage, and sex, and is considered especially important because it relies on the words of women at the time– it is built around the diary of a Northern New England midwife named Martha Ballard. The book, in many ways, changed the understanding of gender roles at the time, especially in the way it displayed not only the economic contributions of midwives like Martha Ballard, but also their incredible abilities to multitask. A Midwife’s Tale won a number of prizes beyond just the Pulitzer, including the New England Historical Association Award, the Bancroft Prize, and the John H. Dunning Prize, and many more. 

Laurel is a self-identified feminist, and also a Mormon, who has written essays about Mormon women and their life experiences– including All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir, which is a collection of essays about Mormon women’s lives, co-edited by Laurel. She is still alive, and has a husband and five children.

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