Ulrich tells the stories of historical women

Grace Christiansen

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who in her first scholarly article famously said, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” visited Lawrence university last week. She gave a presentation Thursday, May 1 and participated in a question and answer session Friday.
Ulrich, now one of the most highly regarded historians in the country, came to the academic game late but rose quickly. She received her doctorate in her 40s and just a few years later was offered a position at Harvard. At Harvard she won a prized university professorship as one of the 300th Anniversary University Professors.
Ulrich is best known for her book “A Midwife’s Tale,” for which she received the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1991. The book is based on the diary of an 18th-century midwife and healer named Mary Ballard.
Ulrich did years of research to fill in the gaps of the sparse diary. The book has been called one of the most important works of the 20th century because it focused on details previously overlooked by scholars, namely, the seemingly insignificant details of the life of a common woman.
It was that same focus Ulrich brought to her Thursday presentation, “The First, Second and Last Scenes of Mortality: A Textile Mystery.” This time she did not focus on Mary Ballard and her diary, but instead focused on Prudence Punderson and her small piece of embroidery.
“I think of history as detective work and so now I’m going to walk you through my attempt to solve a textile mystery,” Ulrich said. She then outlined the work she has done and the discoveries she has made about the life of Prudence Punderson, all which stem from that one piece of embroidery. For instance, she was able to prove that the embroidery depicted an actual room rather than an idealized one.
In doing work like this, as Ulrich implied in her presentation, scholars can uncover the histories of all types of women — well-behaved or not.