Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “A Pail of Cream,” the Journal of American History 89:1 (Jun., 2002), 43-47.
This delightful personal essay covers a lot of ground in five pages: the author’s early attraction to writing, her first professional efforts, Exponent II, the “pink issue” of Dialogue, graduate school and her choice of studies, her support of, by, for, and from other women, A Midwife’s Tale, feminism in and from history, and helping other women “see the many uses of history as well as the many ways of being a woman in times past.”
The title, “A Pail of Cream,” comes from a bit of editing imposed on LTU’s essay for Seventeen magazine (LTU was then still in high school), the last personal essay she published for years, except for some pieces for the Relief Society Magazine. Then came her involvement with a storied group of LDS women in Boston, where LTU had moved with her husband. “I was unsure of my ability to write for a broader audience,” she says, “until some friends and I produced A Beginner’s Boston, a guidebook for newcomers” and one that won public praise.
“After that, my writing moved in two directions, one activist and personal, the other academic.” On the activist/personal side came the women’s issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and Exponent II. She also began writing personal essays for “Latter-day Saint women who were struggling with the same dilemmas I faced. They (and I) needed reassurance that motherhood and religious faith were compatible with intellectual ambitions.”
The academic side was represented by work for her M.A. and Ph.D. honors. Somewhat like that “pail of cream” editing imposed from outside, she writes, “As I am fond of telling my graduate students, I did not choose my field or my graduate school. I simply took advantage of what was availabe in a small state university.” She began to publish academic papers, and continued to raise her family. (One neighbor congratulated her, “For getting your article accepted. Babies don’t count.”)
LTU found strength for many of her ambitions in the history of Mormon feminism — their exercise of the vote, their professional activities as publishers and doctors, their organizational skills. “We found in this forgotten aspect of Mormon history models for religious commitment, social activism, and personal achievement that seemed far more powerful than the complacent domesticity portrayed in popular magazines or in our own congregations.”
She writes about her choice of graduate topic — early American history rather than Mormon history — both because that was what was available to her in her circumstances, and because she “discovered the attractions of strangeness and the liberation in working with material that seemed opaque and alien,” believing that the struggle to understand that alien world lent her “critical distance on my own life and culture.”
LTU describes some experiences and insights from working on A Midwife’s Tale and her astonishment at the warm reception for her book, and its importance to women, to nurses and midwives, to others whose lives and dedication were placed in a long and honored context by their discovery of Martha Ballard’s story.
She concludes with the description of a lecture for her Harvard class on “Women, Feminism, and History,” which includes her acknowledgement of her religious affiliation and a study of both Woman’s Exponent and Exponent II, which “complicate[s] students’ unerstanding of twentieth-century feminism” and “empower[s] them to talk about their own connection to the past.”
Her professional experience has become, unexpectedly, like that “pail of cream”: not what she planned, but “magic” nevertheless:
At a critical point in my own life, history empowered me. It sent me to school, taught me a new way of being a writer, and gave me a critical perspective on my own dilemmas. But it was the women’s movement that brought me to history. Together, feminism and history helped me find a different sort of”magic” in my rural upbringing.