Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Mormon Feminist: An Appreciation by Charles Cohen

Thanks to Spencer Fluhman at BYU, who recently sent along a report of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture meeting just convened in Salt Lake City. During the gathering, a premier scholar of early American religious history, Charles Cohen of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, delivered an appreciation of the influences on the work of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of The Midwife's Tale, The Age of Homespun, and other landmark works. Cohen reflects on the influence of Mormon thought and culture on Ulrich's scholarly work; or, how the personal becomes the historical. Thanks to Spencer Fluhman for his reporting on the conference, and Charles Cohen for consenting to have his remarks published here and also at The Juvenile Instructor.


Even by the capacious definitions of what constitutes early American history, Deseret makes for an unusual place in which to hold an Omohundro meeting. Utah has less claim on our attention than Ghana. The locale does have a certain logic, however, since some scholars known primarily for their work in our field have also contributed to Mormon history, including David Brion Davis, Gordon Wood, Alan Taylor, and John Brooke. For two of our most distinguished figures, however, the connection is both professional and personal; they emerge from as well as dissect that past. Richard Bushman and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich are Mormon historians in a twofold sense: scholars of Mormons, and scholars who are Mormons. For most of us that dual identification means little: the subject lies beyond our chronological horizon, and we base academic reputation on works, not faith. Important aspects of these colleagues intellectual lives transpire in a parallel universe that early Americanists barely know. Consequently, in Bushman’s case we overlook biographies of Joseph Smith and a new-modeled providentialism that radically critiques mainstream historiography’s secular epistemology. In Ulrich’s case, ignoring her Mormon identity blinds us to sources of inspiration invisible in her footnotes.

Ulrich is only now plunging into Mormon history full-bore, but she has made at least one prior excursion. In 2004 she delivered a plenary lecture to the Mormon History Association, whose script she has kindly shared with me, though, absent the accompanying forty-nine slides, the text resembles a sampler in progress, its pattern marked but the vivifying embellishments not yet stitched.[1] The talk is vintage Ulrich, opening with anecdotes about an enamel bowl her husband inherited and a brass bowl that a Chinese miner who literally bet his life in a high-stakes poker game gave to the man who won the hand—and him. The first bowl’s story leads via discrepant recollections of how her father-in-law whipped up his prize-winning angel food cake batter to an observation about the vagaries of memory, while the second’s tale reveals a nineteenth-century empire of goods in which souvenirs exported by migrant merchants in China reached Cantonese consumers in the Inter-mountain West. Demonstrating the value of reading objects and documents in tandem, the lecture’s body unpacks two other items: an unpainted secretary that Nathan Davis cobbled together for his daughter Sarah Davis Thatcher, and a quilt sewn by more than seventy women that the Fourteenth Ward Relief Society raffled off in 1857, a year of profound economic, environmental, and political stress for the Saints, to raise money for the poor. These examples subserve her central concern: Mormons are “blessed with an extraordinarily rich material culture and with a complex and deeply documented history, she notes, “But sometimes the two sides of our heritage sit in different rooms” (4). Objects, she concludes, reveal the struggles, ideals and contradictions “involved in the effort to create a culture and a faith in the Great Basin” (15). Substitute “New England” for “Great Basin” in that sentence and you have an apt epigraph for Ulrich’s work in early American history.

Ulrich’s lecture gestures toward a system for advancing Mormon social history beyond interminable discussions of polygamy. Mormon archives are stuffed, testimony to the Saints’ regard for documenting their past as a sacred trust combined with a passion for genealogy second only to that of hobbits. Yet despite the wealth of available resources, Mormon historians have typically demurred in situating their field within larger narratives of American history, and non-Mormons have seldom invited them to do so. Five years ago Ulrich pointed members of the MHA toward such an engagement, advertising the techniques she had perfected studying early American history and dropping pregnant hints about future lines of research such as analyzing the relationships among the seamstresses of the Fourteenth Ward quilt and their patterns or tracking the routes by which the quilt’s composite fabrics reached Salt Lake City from eastern mills. But Ulrich has always lead by example, not prescription, and she is currently engaged on a book concerned, she tells me, with “notions of family in nineteenth-century Mormon diaries … I want to know how these literate and semi-literate folks wrote about issues that to our minds seem very strange.”[2] Mormon historians are in for an experience, since we early Americanists know what happens when she gets her hands on a diary.

The heart of Ulrich’s method rings a subtle change on the credo of second-wave feminism: for her, the personal is the historical. Take a scribble or a secretary, parse its structure and function, unpack it meanings as they exfoliate from among those most closely connected with the piece to those farther away, and contextualize that discussion within the time period. Her gender analysis drives her to choose items associated with women and the female communities that formed around the object’s use. Nathan Davis intended that his gift to Sarah commemorate himself, but “Today,” Ulrich judges, “the secretary is less a memorial” to him ”than to his daughter” (8). “Cutting up fabric” to create the Fourteenth Ward quilt’s “fancy designs,” she remarks, “seems like a strange way to relie[ve] the poor” and “an inefficient enterprise,” but doing so relieved those women from “the drudgery of housekeeping, the burdens of self-sufficiency, the anxieties of polygamy, and the dangers of idleness” (14). We might think of her early American corpus, particularly A Midwife’s Tale and The Age of Homespun, as a collateral branch of the community studies genre that dominated colonial historiography in the 1970s and 80s; her version-framed by craft work rather than demography-reconstructed families through artifacts, not statistics. This method perfectly suits her subject matter, and it has illuminated women, families and material culture from the seventeenth century through the nineteenth, but she did not derive it to suit a peculiarly early American research agenda. Indeed, to hear her tell it, her discipline and periodization found her: “My intellectual life,” she mused two decades ago, “has been built from ‘jest what happens to come.’” She sought a Ph.D. at the University of New Hampshire “not because it fitted some long-term life plan but because it was handy and relatively cheap.” She chose history despite having earned an M.A. in English ”because the history department was stronger at the time than the English department, and I thought I would get better training. I chose my field of concentration-early America-for much the same reason, though I must admit that the fit was perfect.”[3]

The insights underlying Ulrich’s technique come most readily from outside her professional training. She said as much in her 1992 commencement speech to this very campus: ”My children’s lives have been enriched by my scholarship, and my scholarship has been enriched by my life as a housewife and mother.”[4] Her way of writing about the past reflects a sensibility nurtured by and in constant dialogue with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her habit of elaborating history outward from a core of household activity and interaction through ramifying networks of kinship and community owes much to her embracing the Church’s valorization of domestic life and its construction of families genealogically and sacramentally across time, as well as to a feminist stance nurtured among the Mormon sisterhood who founded Exponent II in conscious emulation of the journals their nineteenth-century forbears had pioneered. Ulrich and her contemporaries were “sustained” in their endeavors, she told the University of Utah’s baccalaureates, “by a new understanding of the past. The lives of ’traditional women,’ women like Martha Ballard, taught us that American women had always sustained their communities as well as their homes. We also learned from women who claimed more public roles. Listen to this voice,” she urged the audience:

It is time that we utterly repudiate the pernicious dogma that marriage and a practical life-work are incompatible.

“Radical 1970s feminist?” she queried. “No, this is Louisa Greene Richards, a pious Latter-day Saint mother writing in the Woman’s Exponent, published in the territory of Utah in 1877. I can date a new era in my life from reading such words.”[5] To be sure, she learned something from her scholarly mentors at New Hampshire; most Mormon matriarchs do not win the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes. At heart, though, her perspective issues from her comfort at simultaneously appropriating and extending her religious tradition. “As a daughter of God,” she wrote in an essay explaining why the phrase “Mormon feminist” both is and is not oxymoronic, “I claim the right to all my gifts. I am a mother, an intellectual, a skeptic, a believer, a crafter of cookies and words.”[6] The personal is also the methodological.

That Laurel Ulrich is working on another major project means that this panel’s assessments are necessarily contingent. Still, we can acknowledge that a career which emerged from the dynamics of Mormon family and community life is now cycling back to explore that life with an analytical acumen perfected in limning the intimate spaces of early America.


[1] “Objects, Memory, and History,” Mormon History Association, Provo, UT, May 20, 2004.

[2] Email, Laurel Ulrich Thatcher to Charles Cohen, April 9, 2009.

[3] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Patchwork,” in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Emma Lou Thayne, All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1995), 25.

[4] Ulrich, “A Phil Beta Kappa Key and a Safety Pin,” in Ulrich and Thayne, All God’s Critters, 156.

[5] Ibid., 155-56. Italics in original.

[6] Ulrich, “Border Crossings,” in ibid., 198.


John G. Turner said…
Thanks, Spencer. I love the line about Mormons, hobbits, and genealogy. I too am looking forward to Ulrich's recent work. Reliable sources have spotted her at BYU Special Collections.
Mark Ashurst-McGee said…
I saw her a half an hour ago outside of the LDS Church's new Church History Library, which was dedicated on Saturday and opened for business fifteen minutes ago. She was second in line to get in, right behind Ardis Parshall.