Mormon Women's History

Beyond Biography

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Editor(s): 
Rachel Cope, Amy Easton-Flake, Lisa Olsen Tait, Keith A. Erekson
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press Mormon Studies Series
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Fairleigh Dickinson University Press
    , November
     2017.
     300 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781611479645.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Mormon women’s history is experiencing a renaissance. Over the last decade or so, several monographs, essays, and primary source collections have expanded the scale, scope, and significance of the field. Mormon Women’s History: Beyond Biography, a new edited volume based on a symposium hosted by Brigham Young University and the Church History Library in 2016, captures much of the progress made by the field in recent years, and also attempts to chart a course for future scholarship. In an introduction to the volume’s ten essays, Rachel Cope explains how Mormon women’s history must offer more than biographical sketches. Brief narrations of a Mormon woman’s familial and religious life do not attend to the complexities of her choices, labors, and networks, or to the multi-layered historical context in which she operated. Mormon women are often relegated to a feminized, flattened periphery, according to Keith A. Erekson’s survey of preceding literature. As a result, efforts to recover Mormon women’s voices have not had much of an impact on Church curricula, Mormon history syntheses, or larger historiographical debates. In this impressive book, readers will find useful models and concrete suggestions for how to operationalize the call to move the field beyond biography and make explicit the significance of Mormon women to American history.

Two standout essays in the collection explore the intersections of Mormon women’s history and memory studies. Jenny Hale Pulsipher analyzes oral histories of Sally Exervier Ward, a Shoshone woman who converted to Mormonism in the 19th century. Pulsipher teases out the anachronisms, contradictions, and popular mythologies embedded in family recollections of Ward, whose descendants obscured uncomfortable details about Ward’s life to preserve a respectable identity for themselves in the present. Andrea G. Radke-Moss also considers politicized acts of remembering (and forgetting) in her essay on gendered recollections of sexual violence against Mormon women during the Mormon-Missouri War (1838-1839). Mormon men publicly referenced the assaults to reinforce group persecution narratives. Through whispers and silences, Mormon women formed countermemories to these dominant male narratives. These essays should inspire more investigations into how memories by and about Mormon women serve present needs and conditions. The LDS Church’s longstanding tradition of commemorating the past is an obvious place to start.

This volume also uses women’s experiences to contend with international influences on Great Basin Mormon communities. Amy Harris shows how women of the Browett family combined their English notions of spiritual, economic, and familial kinship with LDS teachings of divine, eternal kinship. Julie K. Allen presents a similar argument in her study of Wilhelmine Marie Jacobsen Bolvig, a Danish Mormon woman living in territorial Utah. While Bolvig’s husband served a two-year mission, she grappled with isolation from local economic and social networks by flexing her ties to the Danish community, which retained distinct ethnic qualities despite the LDS Church’s policy of assimilation. These rich essays demonstrate the need for more studies of how Mormon women reconciled multiple identities, community allegiances, and belief systems. Only then can we reach a more nuanced understanding of the global context of and diversity within early Mormonism.

Another strength of this book is its attention to women’s roles in Mormonism’s pivot toward mainstream American ideals at the turn of the 20th century. Mormon women found a spiritual calling in art and design. They also used these activities to define their homes and communities as respectable. Heather Belnap Jensen examines a handful of Mormon women artists who traveled to Europe in the late 19th century and cultivated their talents in the visual arts. When they returned to Utah, church auxiliary organizations and periodicals facilitated the creation of art programs and an artistic sisterhood. In the same period, articles on architecture and interior design in the Young Woman’s Journal, an LDS Church publication for Mormon women, encouraged a culture of domestic refinement and gentility. Josh E. Probert shows how women writers who published in the journal borrowed from national tastemakers in advocating that women nurture beautiful and well-managed homes. They simultaneously sacralized this call by arguing for the importance of fashionable styles in building the Millennial New Jerusalem. Women operated as engines of the LDS Church’s “paradigm shift” by balancing unique Mormon ideals with the values of white, middle-class Protestant America. Future scholarship should explore how women navigated this transition not just in domestic, artistic spaces but also as businesswomen, politicians, and theologians.

In addition to pursuing these refreshing lines of inquiry, what other strategies can scholars employ to avoid the “ghettoization” of Mormon women’s history and generate interest in the field? Benjamin E. Park’s analysis of how female voices shaped Mormon theology reminds us to expand definitional boundaries. Amy Easton-Flake’s essay on poetry encourages us to take another look at sources that historians often ignore to gain insight into women’s inner worlds. Keith A. Erekson tells readers to integrate Mormon women into larger historical narratives, consider the relational quality of agency, and avoid reducing individual women to one-dimensional symbols. In a powerful conclusion to the volume, R. Marie Griffith calls for a “crossover book” that engages with ideas and questions from other historiographies and disciplines.

These useful recommendations are mostly in the realm of ideas. I would add that institutions must play a role in fostering the field’s persistence and growth. To draw students and faculty to Mormon women’s history, the Church History Library could offer research grants, sponsor fellowships at universities outside of Utah, direct more resources towards digitizing sources by and about women, and partner with other libraries and archives—like the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, for example—to fund the study of Mormon women. The Mormon History Association could also sponsor panels at women’s history and women’s studies conferences. I agree with Keith A. Erekson’s assertion that “Mormon women’s history truly is Mormon history and American history,” but without time and financial support, scholars cannot fulfill his ambitious call that Mormon women’s history be integrated “into the work of every writer on every topic” (18).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sasha Coles is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research explores the intersections of women’s work, consumer organizing, and religious expression. For her dissertation project, she is writing a history of silk production in the nineteenth-century North American West.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rachel Cope is associate professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

Amy Easton-Flake is assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

Keith Erekson is director of the LDS Church History Library, associate member of the graduate faculty at The University of Texas at El Paso, and a member of the editorial advisory board of the Indiana Magazine of History.

Lisa Olsen Tait is a historian and writer specializing in women’s history at the LDS Church History Department.

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