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“I Had The Advantage of Disadvantage”

The Harvard Gazette has continued to produce their “Experience” series, talking to faculty members about their lives and work. The most recent addition is “I Had The Advantage of Disadvantage,” featuring Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard’s 300th Anniversary University Professor. Even if you don’t know Ulrich’s name, you probably know the phrase she made famous: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” She spoke about her introduction to history, and how her early mentors pushed her to always have a publication mindset:

Q: After getting the degree, in 1971, did you start graduate school in history?

A: I hadn’t finished the Simmons degree when my husband got a job teaching at the University of New Hampshire. So we went to New Hampshire. I had one more course to finish the M.A. so I did it at UNH and transferred it.

I had a part-time job for a year, teaching English, and it was fun. Don Murray — I don’t know if you ever heard of Don Murray. He wrote for the Globe, and he had a Pulitzer and then became a journalism and English teacher at New Hampshire. … He was a wonderful guy. He was the supervisor. I taught freshman English, and then it became really obvious I didn’t want to do that forever.

I thought: I don’t want a Ph.D., I saw my husband go through that, why would I want to do that? Then I saw in the New Hampshire alumni magazine a beautiful chapter from a book just published by a new faculty member named Charles Clark. He was in the history department. I thought: That kind of writing is appealing. I don’t think I want to write critical essays, and I’m not good enough to write poetry, and I’d never really written fiction. I wondered, what is history like? I had never taken a history course. I went to talk to Charlie Clark. I took his course on the literature of early America and loved it.

The history department was totally flexible. They admitted me, even as a faculty wife, and even though I had never had a history course. It’s sort of astounding. And so I did [the Ph.D.] in eight years, which is not long at all. I wasn’t teaching, so I was part time. I felt like I had come home. I just loved it.

UNH had just hired faculty members specializing in early American history. That’s why I majored in early American history — because the best faculty were in that field. So it was Darrett Rutman and Charlie Clark: both former journalists who really cared about writing. They really encouraged me. They were both really terrific, really wonderful. But of course I couldn’t have done it, wouldn’t have done it, if I hadn’t had my women’s network — still in Boston, a lot of them. It was a very close network of good friends, and we continued to work on feminist stuff. Claudia Bushman got a Ph.D. at BU about the same time I was at UNH.

Q: What was that transition like in those days, from literature to history?

A: Charlie had an American studies degree, rather than a straight history degree. He had studied with Carl Bridenbaugh at Brown. Darrett was a hard-core social scientist in his approach to history, but a writer. The two of them really emphasized the literary side of history — history as writing — [but] their methodologies were totally different. Charlie was interested in historical literature and narrative, and he did more intellectual history. Darrett did a lot more quantification and social history. I really think working with the two of them made it possible for me to do what I did. I really got good training in social history and lots of nourishing in terms of writing history. It was a nice combination.

Q: Was it UNH that showed you the way to the history of ordinary people?

A: This was the heyday of the new social history. Darrett was part of that and Charlie was part of that as well. So I was nurtured twice. But I was also nurtured by the women’s studies program at UNH and by my feminist collective, feminist friends that I had in Boston. That’s how I would describe where my work came from.

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