One trip through Rexburg, Idaho, or any amount of time spent there, reminds visitors of the methods of honoring the institutional, religious, and pioneering heritage of western settlements, in ways that often emphasize the prominence of male actors in that history, and the absence, or lesser importance, of female actors. Rexburg, like most Mormon pioneer towns, is possessed of place names as a “Who’s Who” of male church, educational, and pioneer leadership. Indeed, male founders are evident in everything, from the name of the town and neighboring towns (Rigby, for example), to the counties of Jefferson, Madison, and Fremont, down to local Smith and Porter Parks, and most especially in the campus buildings at one of the Church’s three flagship educational institutions, Brigham Young University-Idaho, formerly Ricks College. Of course, the names of Ricks College and Rexburg both come from Thomas E. Ricks, often memorialized both as the town’s founder, as well as the direct ancestor to many of the area’s residents. However, if asked to name one of Ricks’s six plural wives, most townspeople— myself included—would fail miserably at that exam. Still, his legacy lives on, even after Ricks College became a renamed university in 2000. At BYU-Idaho in 2006, the Thomas E. Ricks building was dedicated as the home of various college departments, including my own History, Geography, and Political Science Department. Wrapping around the north side of the Ricks Building are the beautiful Thomas E. Ricks Memorial Gardens, devotedly designed by the Landscape Design faculty and students, and cared for by an army of grounds crew student employees.
Mormon communities like Rexburg, Provo, and Laie (Hawaii), are typical of many college towns in America—Mormon or not—who memorialize their male founders, educators, and politicians. But these towns also represent the quality found among most sectarian colleges and universities, of honoring the “Great Men” associated with the religion at large. For Mormon institutions, this takes the form of naming buildings after church presidents and apostles, even if those men might have little or no direct connection with the campus. As the LDS Church has appropriated architectural naming as a form of memorializing significant Mormon figures on its three campuses, it is no surprise that BYU-Idaho’s main campus area contains buildings named Kimball (Administration), Benson and Romney (Sciences), Joseph Fielding Smith (English), Taylor (Religious Education), McKay (Library) and Hinckley (Elementary and Secondary Education). Significant Ricks College greats are also included, like Jacob Spori (Art) and John L. Clarke (Family Living). Clarke’s name on the Family Living Building is perhaps most ironic because the Department of Home and Family there includes all of the traditionally feminine vocations of Early Childhood Education, Family and Consumer Science, and Child Development. Thus, the absence of Mormon women’s names from these buildings of higher learning is startling, not because so many of these men don’t deserve to have buildings named after them, but because so many women do deserve it.
An example from Provo is illustrative. At BYU, the only buildings that have honored the Great Women of the church are the various dormitories of Heritage Halls, named after the founding mothers, orators, journalists, Relief Society presidents, poets, medical doctors, artists, and suffragists of the 19th-century—Lucy Mack Smith, Eliza R. Snow, Zina D.H. Young, Emmeline B. Wells, Romania Pratt Penrose, Ellis Reynolds Shipp, Aurelia Spencer Rogers, Ruth May Fox, Louie B. Felt, Susa Young Gates, Mary Fielding Smith, Martha H. Tingey, Vilate Kimball, and Emily S. Tanner Richards, among others. These are a very “Who’s Who” of early Mormon women, and yet all are relegated to the place of architectural dorm-mothers. While it is admirable that these women were represented at all, it is unfortunate that their individual aptitudes and contributions were lost within their assignments to a mass of nondescript dormitories. Perhaps this performed, or at least reinforced, the one-size-fits-all approach to defining Mormon women’s public and private roles. And since the demolitions of 2012 (including my own beloved Emma Lucy Smith Bowen Hall and M. Smith Hall), many of those have lost even that status, having been replaced by larger, modern constructions now austerely labeled “25,” “26,” 27,” and “28.”
Built between 1953 and 1956, the Heritage Halls women’s dormitories at BYU recognized the most known and faithful among historical Mormon women who had contributed to public life, spiritual leadership, and political activism, but were also used to emphasize a 1950s sense of true womanhood. Indeed, some of the buildings were named after women who represented ideal motherhood, or whose only claim to fame was that they had mothered or married well-known male priesthood leaders. Lavina Christensen Fugal was the American Mother of the Year in 1955, Mima Melissa Murdock Broadbentand was chosen “because she was an example of a good homemaker,” and Alice Robinson Richards was the wife of apostle George F. Richards, and mother of apostle Legrand Richards.
BYU-Idaho also has six women’s dormitories, named for local women like Sarah Anne Barnes, who taught at the early Bannack Stake Academy (the forerunner to Ricks), Annie Spori Kerr, who taught English, Speech, and Debate, Helen Lamprecht, a significant Home Economics teacher and leader at Ricks and in Idaho, and Edna Ricks, who was a niece of Thomas E., and served longer than any other woman on the Ricks faculty. These women also represented a diversity of civic and religious leadership, musical and other talents, and college leadership, as department chairs and one Dean of Women. They remind us of the importance of finding ways to honor the female pioneers in our communities, even if those methods don’t often match the overall significance of those women to the town’s progress.
Besides these six dormitories (still standing) honoring a handful of Ricks College women, BYU-Idaho also has the distinction of housing the only non-dormitory, or main campus building named after a Mormon woman, among any of the three Church universities. Imagine that—of three large campuses, hundreds of buildings, and almost 50,000 students, only one non-dormitory building is named for a woman—Eliza R. Snow. This might seem especially remarkable since Snow had no direct connection to Rexburg or Ricks College, but also because the university campus is located in arguably the most socially conservative of these Mormon communities. The story behind the naming of the Eliza R. Snow Center for Performing Arts is a story in itself, full of the drama and intrigue of planning and construction delays, financial setbacks, but most compellingly, the efforts of a passionate music professor and Music Department Chair at Ricks College, LaMar Barrus. Barrus was the son of Ruth Barrus, famed local organist, music instructor, amateur historian, and instructor in the Ricks Music Department. Not only did LaMar push relentlessly for the construction of the performing arts center—appropriately named after Mormon poetess and hymn writer Eliza R. Snow (shown above in the plaster reproduction of the original DUP statue; this one located on the main floor of the Snow Center), he also succeeded in naming a concert hall for his mother. The Barrus Concert Hall is the most significant musical performance venue on campus today, for its size and acoustics, but also because it contains a musical gem among Mormonism’s many musical gems, the Ruffatti Organ, which was installed in 1984 at a dedication ceremony attended by Elder L. Tom Perry and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir itself.
The naming of buildings at LDS universities invites us to think about how we honor historical figures in our public spaces, how shared institutional memory is conveyed—or not conveyed—through the built environment, and how we are falling short in memorializing the contributions of Mormon women. Indeed, the absence of women in our campus constructions is emblematic of the larger problems in our historical remembrance– ask any LDS member to name a significant Mormon woman, and he or she is likely to come up with . . . Eliza R. Snow, and perhaps a few others. It also offers a cautionary case against too much celebratory overstatement regarding the equal valuing of male and female contributions, especially in a culture of male leadership, male decision-making, and male institutional control. Still, in my follow-up post, I hope to look at an example of a recent and relatively successful attempt to use public spaces for the purposes of recognizing and celebrating women’s historical contributions. I look forward to readers’ responses on this, and other examples of where they have witnessed the successes or failures of memorializing Mormon women’s history through built, artistic, and natural environments, or the appropriation of other public spaces.