Sister Saints

Mormon Women since the End of Poverty

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Colleen McDannell
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     2018.
     312 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780190221317.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is often told through the lives of Prophets and Apostles, male leaders who claim to speak on behalf of God and lead communities based on the dictates of the divine. As the field of Mormon studies grows, and incorporates more diverse voices, the perspectives of the laity and individuals outside the bounds of leadership emerge as a significant force in the formation of Mormonism as a global religious tradition. Central to these additions are the voices and stories of women. 

Beneath the simplified versions of Mormon history that paint women as secondary to male leaders and plural wives of Prophets lies a history of Mormonism as complex as the women that lived it. Colleen McDannell’s newest book, Sister Saints: Mormon Women since the End of Polygamy, unearths the diverse lives of modern Mormon women to demonstrate the complex ways that women navigate their spiritual lives in the face of a constantly changing cultural context. By placing the history of women first, rather than as a supplement to the history of male leadership, McDannell takes the study of Mormonism in new directions and invites future scholars to do the same.

McDannell’s ten-chapter survey walks the reader through key moments in the history of Mormon women’s lives. Beginning with Emmeline B. Wells and the spiritual lives of women who were brought into a world of prophetic revelation, divine healing, and spiritual gifts, McDannell asks readers to reconsider previously held ideas of a womanhood bound by oppression and submission. Although these women participated in a marriage system that both tested the faithful and forged unbreakable bonds, they also founded one of the largest women’s organizations in the world and became leading figures in women’s rights. As the practice of polygamy came to a gradual end beginning in 1890, and the modern Mormon woman came into existence, the testing, bonds, and leadership of Mormon women was carried into the turn of the century.

Rather than furthering the idea Mormon women were “polygamists or pioneers” (xi), McDannell moves beyond the 19th century to examine the lives of women after the LDS Church abandoned the practice of plural marriage. As McDannell mentions, the task of telling the history of modern Mormon women is a challenge because of the vast experiences and attitudes they embody. Mormon women are suffragettes, religionists, feminists, antifeminists, activists, and bloggers. Mormon women actively negotiate their individual autonomy in light of hierarchical leadership. Most importantly, they are “active creators of Mormon culture” (xiii).

McDannell’s “lived religion” framework is her greatest strength. For a field that has long centered on social history, she moves Mormon studies forward to consider the religion of the general membership rather than the religion of General Conference. Rather than address the religious lives of women at a distance, she takes their faith seriously as a conviction that shaped both temporal and spiritual matters. The book also recognizes that Mormonism does not exist within a religious vacuum, and she contextualizes Mormonism within broader religious traditions that similarly dealt with changing ideas about womanhood. Drawing on the historiography of both Catholic and Protestant traditions, McDannell subtly shows how the struggles and triumphs experienced by Mormon women were part of the larger story of American womanhood. In this way, Mormonism offers a way to understand broader trends in American culture at various points in history.

Mormon women’s adaptation to modernity is central to McDannell’s narrative. Just as cultural attitudes shifted during the Progressive Era, so did the Church’s teachings on gender and family. This included the Relied Society moving to an increasingly auxiliary position under the leadership of men. At the same time, modernity altered the trajectory of women’s lives by transforming their religious sphere into a space designed to aid the public. No longer a place focused on spiritual teaching and divine healing, the Relief Society became a space for social work and championing cultural causes. One of the greatest strengths of McDannell’s telling of women in the 20th century was the focus on the range of views among women in leadership, and how this range reflected shifts in the broader American context. This is most exemplified in the leadership of Amy Lyman, who championed social causes and material reform, and her successor Belle Spafford, notable opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Never has a chapter on gender equality in Mormonism been more timely than following the October 2018 General Conference. During both regular sessions and the general women’s session of the Conference, Church leaders reaffirmed the Church teachings on gender and family. McDannell’s chapter “Equal Partners” focuses on the document leaders drew from during the Conference to articulate their positions on the eternal nature of gender and the centrality of motherhood, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Not only did this document cement Church teaching, it also concretized the Relief Society as an auxiliary organization, having no place in the conversations that led to the establishment of the document that presented the official teachings on women’s eternal nature and place in the celestial order. While outlining the nature of a male deity and the role of fathers, there is only a single sentence on motherhood and no comments on womanhood. For readers, this chapter will be foundational for understanding the history and lasting significance of the document that formally presented the Church’s official view of women. 

Mormon women listen to their leaders, but often make choices that disagree with their counsel. While this often manifests in “following the Prophet,” there is also space for disagreement. In recent years, the internet became a place where the diverse expressions of women’s interpretation and experience are present. Through an overview of Mormon women on the internet, McDannell brings voices previously unfound in scholarship on Mormonism into the history. From “mommy bloggers” to Ordain Women, blogs that perpetuate the teaching of Fascinating Womanhood to Feminist Mormon Housewives and Sistas in Zion, McDannell demonstrates that Mormon womanhood is as diverse as its women.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cristina Rosetti is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Colleen McDannell is Professor of History and Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Utah. One of the nation's foremost experts on American religious history, she has been a Guggenheim Fellow and has held the Fulbright's John Adams Chair in American History at Groningen University in the Netherlands. She is the author of several books including Material Christianity and Heaven: A History.

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