A common critique I read or hear about regarding the Mormon History community is that much is written by men, and likely for other men—Mormon history is not not often viewed through the lens of women. In order to remedy this problem in my own reading I looked through the Mo-history/culture books I have read over last few years and to my delight I found that some of my favorite works are written by women and often written about women’s experiences or on topics highly relevant to women (i.e. polygamy). Those titles include the following:
– by Martha Sonntag Bradley
No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith
– by Fawn M. Brodie
The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle
– by Kathleen Flake
Desert Patriarchy: Mormon and Mennonite Communities in the Chihuahua Valley
– by Janet Bennion
More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910
– by Kathryn M. Daynes
The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America
– Sarah Barringer Gordon
Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith
– by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery
The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith
– by Joanna Brooks
Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact
– by Neylan McBaine
All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir
– by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Some others than I have prioritized on my “to-read” list are:
The Mountain Meadows Massacre
– by Juanita Brooks
Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition
– by Jan Shipps
Women of Covenant
– by Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher
The Polygamous Wives Writing Club: From the Diaries of Mormon Pioneer Women
– by Paula Kelly Harline
Mormon Feminism – Essential Writings
– by Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright
– by Gordon Shepherd, Lavina Fielding Anderson, and Gary Shepherd
My pointing towards this wonderful selection of stories involving women written by women is not an attempt to pat myself on the head or to wave hands around and saying “see, there is no problem of voice and perspective in telling Mormon history or the Mormon experience.” I just wanted to highlight some excellent books, some recent and some ground breaking in Mormon history, and point out the wealth of talent we have in the Mormon history community. The review for this post is on another work written about women by women. It is an impressive collection of essays, and, in my opinion, Mormon Sisters is an important part of any Mormon history enthusiasts collection.
The book was originally published in 1976 and came from a discussion group of Mormon women’s history (later it was republished with additional essays). Each author decided on a particular topic to research, study, and write up and was ultimately edited and compiled by Claudia Bushman. Each essay is easily read and digested and ranged somewhere between 15 and 23 pages (including the notes section of each chapter). The topics include women’s healing, pioneer midwives, plural wives, feminists, political activists, mini-biographies of Eliza R. Snow and Susa Young Gates, earl Utah school teachers, and charity work carried out by Mormon women (largely via the Relief Society). The final chapter was a look at “Fictional Sisters” through Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s analysis of 20th century novels depicting 19th century Utah life. This was a most interesting parsing of storytelling and it is this portion of the book I’d like to highlight here.
As many dime novels are of moderate or low quality though the top 10 percent or so always shine brighter than the rest. Ulrich shortens our reading list by pointing out the top three works that transcend the average. The top three according to Ulrich are Mauring Whipple’s The Giant Joshua, Virginia Sorenson’s The Evening and The Morning, and Halldor Laxness’ Paradise Reclaimed.
Through reading numerous 20th century novels Ulrich identified four stereotypes used to portray the Mormon pioneer women: Earth Mother, Amazon, Pandora, and Virtuous Victim. The Earth Mother is closest to the idealized grandmother, she is often Danish and keeps households that always “smell of cookies and clean towels.” The Earth Mother is not so concerned with theology, or even religion in general as she is in taking care of her children and grandchildren, comforting them when sick and delivering the babies of others as they come into this world. The Amazon is more adapted or fit for tough desert life. She is not fat but is busty, big boned and square jawed. She is most concerned about protecting her own but when she recognizes the want and need in others she always gives of what she has to give, though done with the vengeful attitude of Mattie Ross. The Pandora is the enticing yet problematic woman for Mormon men striving to be pious and yet remaining sensitive to their fleshy desires. She can’t resist flirting and she persistently and deliberately shows her sexy ankle during her husbands sermons. She is rebellious and highly desirable which creates conflict of soul in her “priesthood lord.” Finally, the Virtuous Victim. She is the quintessential Victorian woman, a porcelain doll set on a pedestal. She polishes her husbands shoes and hands him his bible. She has become this way often pathologically, for instance by burying the shame of her passions and desires in housework and ‘proper’ behavior.
Ulrich argues that these various stereotypes are useful to modern readers looking into the past by allowing the stereotypes to overlay on top of one another forming a composite image of a 19th woman, a better approximation of the genuine article than any single reduction. Additionally, taking notice of the various stereotypes invoked in the writing can remind the reader of the convenient and limited lens through which we view others and sometimes ourselves. Perhaps we should be provoked to consider that we, and those around us actually wear many masks and are not easily nor accurately reduced to one particular description but are complex individuals morphing and molding ourselves to the situations we find ourselves in.
The study of fictional history or historical fiction is an interesting one and Ulrich points out that historical novelists and historians often work from the same material for their writing but ultimately the difference between the two is that the novelists are not limited by the documentary data as a historian is, or should be. This distinction is both an advantage and a drawback for the novelist but allows the reader to perhaps have a more intimate look into the past for as Ulrich states “art cracks the mysteries that facts can’t touch.” The data trail often can leave us in an incredibly unsatisfying and rather ambiguous position with regard to conclusions and the details of life in the past, but fictional narratives can release us from that epistemic prison. Though, we must remember and always keep in mind the nature of our liberator.
This is but one summarized view of the kind of analysis you’ll find in Mormon Sisters. It was a good read, an essential one in my mind, to start to know the real pioneer experience beyond hagiographic trek stories and the horrors of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Mormon Sisters gives a glimpse into the lived experience of 19th century Mormon women.