Adolescence, Gendered Anxieties, and the Emergence of the YLMIA and YMMIA

By October 26, 2013

As I have been writing (or trying to write!) my dissertation of conceptions of and conversations about Mormon girlhood from the 1860s to the 1930s, I have been doing some thinking about how the development of adolescence as a new age categorization overlapped with Mormon concerns about youth. As part of the monthly series Childhood, Children, and Youth , I have offered some, perhaps, scattered historiographical thinking below about the development of the YLMIA and YMMIA in relationship to the emergence of age categorizations in gendered terms.

As many of us know the story: on November 28, 1869, Brigham Young stated the following:

There is a need for the young daughters of Israel to get a living testimony of the truth. Young men obtain this while on missions, but this way is not opened to the girls. More testimonies are obtained on the feet than on the knees. I wish our girls to obtain knowledge of the Gospel for themselves. For this purpose I desire to establish this organization and want my family to lead in the great work.[1]

The fact that young women did not have the same opportunities to learn about the religion that young men gained through serving missions was not lost on Brigham Young. However, instead of instituting a missionary for young women, to Brigham Young the most suitable solution for him seemed to put his most trusted female church members, his wives, daughters, and their close friends, to the challenging task of forming a new organization, the Retrenchment Association, which would later become the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association.

The founding of the original Retrenchment Association took place in the midst of midst of changing ideas regarding girls and young women’s place in society. Expectations and anxieties regarding children varied across gendered lines. Several decades before the word adolescent gained popularity after the publishing of G. Stanley Hall’s seminal work on the subject in 1904, new interpretations about the demographic category of young women were materializing. Despite historians assigning the term adolescents to these young women, young women and their elders did not use this term in the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1875, the church established the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association, which served as a companion organization to the Young Ladies’ Retrenchment Association. Junius F. Wells, whom Brigham Young called to organize the young’s men MIA, stated in a historic sketch about the founding that “The inspiration of the general organization of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association was from God, expressed by the President of the Church of Latter-day Saints. It was not derived from any other society in existence either in or out of the Church.”[2] Wells’ insistence that no other organization influenced the beginning  of the YMMIA is perplexing, especially since Brigham Young, who also founded the Retrenchment Association first, called Wells to lead the young men’s group. Whereas the YMMIA held some different goals and purposes form the YLMIA, its founding aims were not completely dissimilar from the RA.  On January 10, 1875 Brigham Young asserted the Church wanted young men “to hold meetings where they will stand up and speak—get into the habit of speaking—and of bearing testimony.”[3]  Young was interested in energizing the religious identities and educations of both young men and women. Additionally, the founding of the YMMIA followed the inception of other groups like the Young Men’s Christian Association. These details point out that even though the formation of the YMMIA was divinely inspired, it was influenced by other events within Mormonism and outside of it.

Perceptions of a “boy problem” erupted in the United States during the Progressive Era. One of the first organized camping enthusiasts Henry W. Gibson asserts that the most problematic boys were boys from the street, propagators of juvenile delinquency, and overly sheltered boys who suffered from “degeneracy.”[4] William Forbush, author of the Boy Problem (1907), believed contending with the issues surrounding street boys was less problematic, as these young men, who were usually immigrants, mostly needed to conquer antisocial tendencies rooted in their ethnicities. Boy Scout co-founder Ernest T. Seton described the problem of “degeneracy” as an unfortunate transition of “a large portion of our robust, manly, self-reliant boyhood into a lot of flat-chested cigarette-smokers, with shaky nerves and doubtful vitality.”[5]   Some of the roots of this “degeneracy” laid within the structures of institutions of society like schools and churches, in which boys spent too much time inside studying and staying still, and, thus, they became weak, feminized, and lacking self-reliance.

By the late nineteenth century the pervasive “boy problem” had largely taken over fears of young women’s precocity. While there was no largely identified “girl problem” that was akin to the “boy problem,” concerns for adolescent girls and young women was also present among parents, reformers, social scientists, and the American public. Worries for young women were inextricably tied up with fears about the negative consequences of modernity and changing values. For the Mormon Church leadership, young women literally represented the possibility of future generations, as they were to become next generation of Mormon mothers to their own children.

The separate developments of the MIA groups for each gender occurred around or, arguably, predated the emergence of worrisome trends attached to each gender in mainstream America.  However, the groups quickly adapted to the perceived changing needs of each gender, within the context of Mormonism and the larger country, over time.  For example, following the end of plural marriage and in response to rising fears that young women would marry outside of the faith, the YLMIA offered lesson plans and the Young Woman’s Journal printed editorials and lessons about the importance of marrying and staying within the religion. These ideas fit within larger concerns among social theorists, commentators, reformers, and parents that young women would fall prey to the negative aspects of modernity and wander away from tradition.  Additionally, in response to worries about “degeneracy” among young men, various religious denominations and groups such as the Boy Scouts developed different forms of leisure and recreation activities, sports programs and camps aimed at offering a young man a chance to enter an all male environment to engage in strenuous physical activity. The Mormon church was no different and presented a variety recreational and educational programs through the YMMIA directed at boys to inculcate the Mormon “frontier values” that had defined the earlier generations.[6]

While I have no firm conclusions about the information I have discussed, of course, I have many questions. Are there a concrete reasons that the church organized youth groups before larger and similar concerns regarding each gender “broke out” across the United States? Were Mormon early concerns about children just tied to generational concerns? Was there a tension because the YLMIA was founded before the YMMIA? Was it expected that a youth group for young men would occur before a group for young women? Is the founding story of the YLMIA more celebrated and “remembered” than that of the YMMIA?

I will likely be exploring (and, hopefully, answering these questions) in future blog posts as I research and write my dissertation.


[1] Susa Young Gates, History of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association of the Church of Jesus Christ of L.D.S., from November 1869 to June 1910 (Salt Lake City: General Board of Y.L.M.I.A., 1911), 6-7.

[2] Junius F. Well, “Historic Sketch of the Y.M.M.I.A.: First Period” Improvement Era 28 (June 1925): 713.

[3] Brigham Young quoted in Junius F. Well, “Historic Sketch of the Y.M.M.I.A.: First Period”: 713.

[4] Clifford Putney, Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001), 100.

[5] Putney, 100.

[6] Richard Kimball, Sports in Zion: Mormon Recreation, 1890-1940 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 3-4




Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fascinating, thanks Natalie. I think generational concerns were definitely at play, combined with the sense that 1) the younger generation wasn’t faced with the same tasks of “pioneering the wilderness” and 2) weren’t facing persecution as had the first generation of Mormons.

    Comment by David G. — October 26, 2013 @ 2:20 pm

  2. Fascinating stuff. While I’m afraid I don’t have any answers to your questions, they have made me consider new things.

    Comment by Ben P — October 27, 2013 @ 5:57 am

  3. I agree with the others, Natalie, that is quite interesting. I wonder about the timing of the creation of other societies for young men and women. I can think of dozens of organizations – local and national – that existed in the mid-nineteenth century for young women to work to improve their own intellect and sophistication. I can’t think of as nearly many for men. I’m honestly not sure if this is a reflection of my own reading, the historiography in general, or the arc of nineteenth-century history itself. All the organizations I can think of for young men are from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.

    Comment by Amanda HK — October 27, 2013 @ 6:31 pm

  4. Great post, Natalie.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — October 27, 2013 @ 8:58 pm

  5. This is really fascinating, Natalie. I’m excited to read your dissertation when it’s complete!

    Comment by Christopher — October 28, 2013 @ 11:56 am

  6. Thanks so much for your comments! Didn’t realize there were any til now 🙂

    Comment by Natalie R — October 31, 2013 @ 1:11 am


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