Women and Mormonism

Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

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Editor(s): 
Kate Holbrook, Matthew Bowman
  • Salt Lake City, UT: 
    University of Utah Press
    , May
     2016.
     384 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781607814771.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Women and Mormonism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives developed from the “Women and the LDS Church: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives” conference held at Salt Lake City in August 2012. This edited volume was assembled by the conference organizers, Kate Holbrook and Matthew Bowman, using content presented at the conference, along with supplementary essays. In the introduction, the editors state that the volume’s principal argument is “that agency always exists on a spectrum, that even the most oppressed beings have some measure of ability to act” (4). They argue that historians have understood Mormon women’s agency too narrowly and have limited it to actions that resist authority or institutions. The editors urge historians to widen their definition of agency in future research to include a broader understanding of women’s agency and its implementation. This argument is not new in academia, and the editors confirm that “many historians, particularly in women’s studies and the history of slavery, have offered a more nuanced interpretation of agency” (4). While this argument is not novel to scholars in other areas, this book is the first to apply this understanding of agency to Mormon women and their experiences.

The twenty-one essays that make up this volume are divided into four parts based on methodology. Part 1 is focused on historical methodology perspectives, and is the longest section of the book. It opens with Catherine A. Brekus’s essay, which was previously published in the Journal of Mormon History in 2011. Her essay is central to the volume and is mentioned in the introduction as a catalyst that brought attention to the limited use of Mormon women’s agency in scholarship. Brekus argues for “a new model of agency—a model that recognizes both the capacity of ordinary women to create change and the structural constraints on their agency” (28). The rest of the essays in the volume try to answer Brekus’s call for a broader understanding of agency by highlighting how and when women use agency within the Mormon tradition. Part 1 continues with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s essay “Remember Me: Inscriptions of Self in Nineteenth-Century Mormonism.” Ulrich urges historians to study historical materials like autograph albums and woven hair ornaments, especially because women’s writings were not produced or preserved as often as men’s, yet are still valuable to historical analysis.

Part 2 includes historical narrative perspectives and opens with Susanna Morrill’s essay “Mormon Women’s Agency and Changing Conceptions of the Mother in Heaven.” Morrill argues that women have limited agency over doctrines like the Mother in Heaven, which has been influenced by women through publications such as the Exponent, Exponent II, Sunstone, Dialogue, and Ensign, and internet blogs. In the essay “Jane James’ Agency,” Quincy D. Newell points out how Jane James expressed her agency though letters, meetings, and biblical exegesis that challenged church leaders, but she also expressed agency by submitting to church doctrines.

Part 3 centers on contemporary social science perspectives and opens with Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye’s essay “Culture and Agency in Mormon Women’s Lives.” Inouye conducted oral history interviews of Mormon Asian immigrants to North America and found that “geographic border crossing expands Mormon women’s agency in authoring their religious and cultural lives” (243). Part 3 closes with an essay titled “Mormon Women’s Sexual Agency in Patriarchal Culture” by Jennifer Finlayson-Fife. She argues that Mormon gender and sexuality cultural norms obstruct many women’s sexual agency. However, a minority of Mormon women use LDS theology to support their sexual agency.

Part 4 covers contemporary personal perspectives and opens with Claudia Bushman’s essay, “Agency in the Lives of Contemporary LDS Women.” Her essay discusses agency as a feminist doctrine and how women can use it to create their own perspectives. Mariama Kallon, writing with Riley M. Lorimer, tells how the LDS Church taught her how to find her own agency and voice in the essay “A Mormon Woman’s Journey in Sierra Leone.”

Overall this volume successfully argues for a more nuanced understanding of women’s agency in Mormonism. It is no small feat to bring together so many authors and methods while still developing a coherent volume that is focused and relevant to current discussions. I am also happy to see that the editors tried to include a broad spectrum of authors in the volume, including international and minority voices. This variety of perspectives highlights the intersectionality of agency, gender, race, and nationality. Overall I believe that readers will appreciate this volume as another key text in the study of women in Mormonism. My only critique is that the term “agency” is not used in the title of the book. Scholars interested in agency might not recognize this volume as a potential resource, especially if they are not focused on Mormon studies. This would be a shame, given that Women and Mormonism would be a great resource for both research and use in a wide variety of courses discussing women’s agency.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shelby D. Lamar is a doctoral student in critical comparative scriptures at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
November 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kate Holbrook is a specialist in women’s history at the LDS Church History Department. She is coeditor ofGlobal Values 101: A Short Course and The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History. 

Matthew Bowman is associate professor of history at Henderson State University. He is the author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith and The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism.

Keywords: 

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