The Importance of Studying Ordinary Lives: An Interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

The forthcoming issue of Historically Speaking (April 2009) includes an interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and president of the American Historical Association. Ulrich is the author of a number of influential books and essays on colonial history, material culture, social history, and women’s history. Her Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (Random House, 2007) examines the appeal of that phrase and describes the life and work of women who “turned to history as a way of making sense of their own lives.” The following is brief excerpt from the interview.

Randall Stephens: In Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History you write: “History is a conversation and sometimes a shouting match between present and past, though often the voices we most want to hear are barely audible.” What have those barely audible voices said to us, and why do they matter?

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: What does Martha Ballard’s diary tell us that the papers of George Washington don’t about the same historical period? In my view, plenty. For instance, Martha Ballard’s diary turns on its head the conventional narrative of the rise of modern medicine, which charts the progress from primitive lay healers to scientific healers, championing the superiority of the latter. But when you compare Martha Ballard’s diary with the records of 19th-century physicians, you get two different pictures of childbirth. The physicians’ account books reveal a succession of dangerous cases. Yet when I go to Martha Ballard’s diary, I realize that dangerous cases were rare. Doctors and their tools were making childbirth more dangerous, not less so.

Another example: economic history. The conventional narrative says that late 18th- and early 19th-century America was in the throes of a consumer revolution. And, indeed, storekeepers’ accounts from Martha Ballard’s time and place portray an economy in which local inhabitants exchanged lumber for the manufactured goods brought in on ships. But Martha’s diary reveals that she and others were constantly spinning and weaving, making their own clothes. According to storekeepers’ accounts, a consumer revolution wiped out local production. Yet an ordinary woman’s diary shows that local production was still very important, as well as interwoven with the commercial marketplace. By studying Martha Ballard’s diary, you can understand the difference between a calico dress, which Martha’s daughter had, and all the other clothing and bedding that was made at home.

One more example: If you studied that period through legal records, you would think that the society has gone from policing private behavior, à la Puritan New England, to dealing only with economic behavior. That is the classic picture we got from historians who worked on court records. But go through Martha Ballard’s diary and you’ll see in action the old 1680 law about the midwife taking testimony at the height of labor in order to hold someone accountable for paternity. So I don’t think anonymous people need to be included in the historical record just because of fairness or justice. Studying them carefully makes for more accurate history.