Janika Dillon | Interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

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Janika Dillon holds a Masters degree in Organizational Behavior and International Development, and worked in Executive Education prior to staying home full-time with her four young children.  You can read her previous guest post ‘Taking a Stay-Cation' and full bio here.

One of the dreams that Janika is currently ‘dating' is pursuing a PhD in History.  This “has translated into reading many historical books, researching History PhD programs, contacting students and professors in the field, attending lectures on historical topics, and even mapping out a possible time line to completion of the degree.”

She continues, “One person that I wanted to learn from was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History and other awards for her book A Midwife's Tale, a Harvard professor of history and author of several other fascinating books about women in history, including the more recently published Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History.

A few days before my September 2008 meeting (yes — asking to interview Laurel Ulrich took some daring), I mentioned the upcoming meet to a friend who promptly exclaimed, “Oh, she's my hero!”  I agreed wholeheartedly.   As you'll read below, Laurel Ulrich managed to raise a family and excel at her academic interests.  My thanks to her for sharing her time and wisdom with us.”

Janika:  Your life's work has been to study the daily lives of women in history. What do you think is the benefit to women today in looking back?  What can we learn from these women in history?

Ladies de pizanLaurel:  I think the biggest benefit is exemplified by Christine de Pizan in The Book of the City of Ladies written in 1405.  She wrote, “There is nothing in the world that women can't do.”

We have the notion sometimes that women's lives have been uniform and unchanging over time.  What's so interesting in Christine's book is the variety of things women have done.  They've invented things, been leaders, been good at gardening, religious heroines. They've been queens.  She's got something for everybody in that book!

It's a very, very simple lesson that I think has been lost.  There's a classic narrative that “Women have been confined to the home and then maybe 20 years ago there was a woman's movement and all these opportunities opened up.  Or conversely, all these terrible things started to happen”, depending on your point of view.  If you look at the long view, women have always contributed to the economy of their society — always!

Janika: What were some of the obstacles you faced in becoming the kind of writer you wanted to become?

Laurel:  Time.  Finding time to write and forcing myself to use the small amounts of time that I had.  I remember when I was doing Beginner's Boston, a guide to the Boston area.  When my kids went down for a nap, I had to choose between trying to write or taking a nap myself.  It was a hard choice.  It was so easy to let all the demands take over.  Kind of like that Steve Covey thing about the urgent and the important.  The urgent always pushes out the important.  Then I would sit down and the words would come so slowly because I was out of practice and I didn't know how to write what I wanted to say.  It was a real challenge to get one sentence written.

Midwife's taleI continue to face this same challenge every day of my life:  shall I sit down and be miserable for a little while until I
can make it work or not?  Writing is very, very hard, and it has to happen daily, inch by inch, sentence by sentence. It's hard to produce more than one paragraph a day.  Sometimes I let my students see my really rotten initial drafts.  It's comforting for them to realize, “Oh, she has trouble too!”

Janika:  Who helped you along this path and what kind of help did you need?

Laurel: The #1 help and support has been my husband.  He thought my interests were great and he often recognized better than I did what really made me happy.  He was also a great practical help through the years by doing his share with the children and being a good dad and then he had a good income.  Let's face it!  That helped.  I didn't have to work for money.  My first paying job was when I was in my 40s.

Second to my husband was my network of Latter-day Saint women.  Very important.  My good, supportive friends in the Boston area and New Hampshire.  I mean, I had friends who believed in me.

Laurel Ulrich Janika Dillon

Janika:  So, how did your kids fit into the picture?

Laurel: My kids were good.  My kids grew up with me boiling things over and destroying pots and they joke about my absentmindedness.  They were good sports.  I did my graduate degrees one course at a time.  My oldest was in elementary school when I began and he was in college when I finished.  It was a long process.  I got my bachelor's degree in 1960, my master's degree in 1971 and my PhD in 1980, when I was 42.  My oldest child was 15 years older than my youngest.

Janika:  I think it would be interesting for Whitney's readers to know, did you ever dream you'd go from a small-town Idaho upbringing to Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor at Harvard?   And what advice might you have for women pursuing their dreams?

Laurel:  Well, first, No–I never imagined that I'd be doing the kind of work that I'm doing now or be in the place that I'm now in.  So, I didn't plan my life.

Well Behaved Ulrich The advice I'd give people is that old cliche “Blossom where you're planted.”  That is, do whatever you do wholeheartedly and with joy: the joy really is in the doing.  I don't think we can expect or plan or attempt to win the prizes.  What I attempted to do was write with passion and in a way that would be accessible to other people.  I didn't ever want to just write books for other historians.   So I've worked hard to write in an accessible way.

I really didn't think I had achieved that with A Midwife's Tale so it was a surprise to me that it had the kind of success it did.  But, it was a joy to do.  I loved working on that book.  It was a transforming experience, really.  This may be a conventional insight, but it really is the doing that's fun!  The fifteen minutes of fame are exciting, but that's not what sustains any of us.

It's kind of like my husband, who likes to build things and I always want to see it get finished.  But I am gradually starting to realize that what he enjoys is the doing.  That's a really good lesson because if you don't enjoy the small pieces of whatever it is that your job is, you're probably not going to enjoy the end product when you get there.  I've heard that the best predictor of happiness in the future is enjoying what you are doing right now.


First off, ‘Atta Girl' Janika for reaching out to Laurel (that really did take some daring, as it always does with someone that we admire) — and for spending the time to transcribe the interview!

What have you learned from this interview?

Were you surprised to read about Christine de Pizan's findings?

As I read Laurel's remark that it's important to enjoy the small pieces of a job, I couldn't help but think of Bonnie White's Delight in the Doing, Christine Vick's Simply Living and Lisle Hendrickson's What Makes Me Happy.

Who would you like to learn about and from?  What if you were to contact and ask for the interview?  Even if they say ‘no' — what a victory it will be to ask for what you want.  (I did that this week.  No response, but I asked).  If she says yes, and you would like to publish excerpts from the interview here, we'd love to learn!

For a transcript of Janika's conversation with Laurel Ulrich, click here.

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