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Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher (1938–) - Colonial U.S. History, Biography

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Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was born on July 11, 1938, in Idaho, the daughter of John Kenneth and Alice (Siddoway) Thatcher. She graduated from the University of Utah in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree in English. She married soon after college and had five children, Karl, Melinda, Nathan, Thatcher, and Amy. Then, in the late 1960s, Ulrich discovered the feminist movement and began, as she states, to redefine herself and her work. Along with a group of women friends in Massachusetts, she edited a book and founded a scholarly journal and a newspaper. Her interest then was in the history and thought of Mormon women. At the same time, she earned a master’s degree in English from Simmons College.

When Ulrich’s husband joined the faculty of the University of New Hampshire, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in history there. “I had become more interested in context than text,” she explains, “and at that time the distinction between the two was more rigidly applied in literary criticism than it is today.” She also pursued history hoping to write works that might be widely read.

In pursuing women’s history in the colonial period, Ulrich brought together several of her interests. Her first book, Good Wives: Images and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650–1750 , explores the many and varied roles that women, “good wives” among them, played in the social, economic, and political life of the New England colonies. Her second examination of women’s lives during the period, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812 , earned her, among many other national prizes, the Pulitzer Prize for history. This biography of a Maine midwife provides, as Jan Lewis argues, “perhaps the finest and most richly textured description of colonial women’s experience yet written.” It also provides a critique of the ways in which colonial history has generally been written and provides, as this same reviewer claims, “feminist history by example.”

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work was the recipient of many other honors as well, including the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians’ annual book award and two awards from the American Historical Association, one for the best book on United States history and the other for the best book on Canada, the United States, or Latin America. It was also one of two titles to win Columbia University’s Bancroft Prize in history.

A faculty member of the University of New Hampshire since completing her Ph.D., Ulrich took a position as tenured professor of history and women’s studies at Harvard University in 1995.

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