Exponent II began in 1974 in the Cambridge neighborhood of Harvard Square. On its fortieth anniversary, its founders – silver, sassy, and more than a little surprised that what they had wrought was still going strong – returned to one of the neighborhood’s church halls packed with guests to celebrate the organization and its achievements. I was so, so happy to be there, too.
Exponent II’s story begins with Exponent “I,” the Woman’s Exponent, published from 1872-1912 and representing Mormon women’s voices from the intermountain West during the era of polygamy, persecution, and Relief Society autonomy. Copies of the paper were collected and deposited (buried, shall we say) in the Harvard Library, which then ironically served as a 20th century Cumorah where this sacred record was unearthed and studied (internalized, translated) by a group of women united by their interest in Mormon women’s potential and history. Just as with the original Cumorah, whose record was yielded up at a unique historical moment before belief in magic disappeared and at the height of the second Great Awakening, timing was everything. The discovery of the Woman’s Exponent, and the realization that it had been thoroughly expunged from the church’s historical memory, happened during the second wave of the women’s movement with its consciousness-raising groups and as the fight over ERA was ramping up, and it happened to a collective of women who did more than just appreciate and discuss. Their study inspired a second paper: modest at first, hardly more than a mimeograph, that has grown into a glossy quarterly, a polished online blog, and now two generations of meetings, retreats and personal connections, all of it capturing and promoting women’s perspectives within Mormonism.
Judy Dushku introduced the main speaker, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, by stressing Ulrich’s understated subversiveness within the field of history, calling her a disguised revolutionary, the “Howard Zinn of women.” Dushku pointed not only to Ulrich’s methodological innovations evident in her books and articles and teaching, but also to her effective leadership style (mentioning in particular her skillful negotiation of the 2009-2010 AHA controversy over the San Diego Hyatt location), and her committed feminism, concluding that Ulrich “could go solo but chooses to stay with the choir” (an apt metaphor for Dushku, herself a tremendously skilled choir leader).
Ulrich began by observing they began publishing Exponent II on newsprint, “the trashiest paper” available, in part because it was cheap and they thought it would be fleeting, and that people could use it to start their fire; “we didn’t know we were starting our own fire.” She read Claudia Bushman’s prospectus of the paper from an early edition, which she noted was forthright in claiming the right to represent the 19th-century Mormon women’s legacy, open in acknowledging and caring about the contemporary issues of its own moment in the mid-1970s, and bold in stating the paper’s radical intentions. Exponent II, said Ulrich, picked up a cause that had been laid down with the end of the first Woman’s Exponent and hadn’t been championed by the successor paper, the Relief Society Magazine, or with any other Mormon publication in a sustained way (the pink issue of Dialogue in 1971 notwithstanding). The paper grew out of five years of conversations and meetings, a common experience of reading together a number of texts dating back a decade, including The Feminine Mystique (1963). She thus positioned the group as rising from and responding to mainstream second wave feminism but charting its own path as it re-opened a bricked-up lost avenue of Mormon culture and brought its concerns into their own time.
She recounted the painstaking, low-tech process of putting out the paper in the early years: late-night paste-up sessions once the children were put to bed, a single electric typewriter, a page of sticky letters for headlines. She noted that the paper has been, for its entire 40-year span, an all-volunteer effort and she called for an endowment to provide some compensation to its editors going forward. And she forcefully challenged Exponent II to position itself within an increasingly polarized landscape of competing narratives about feminism, and to not let it be defined by outsiders (e.g. as founded by a “feminist coven spawned in the People’s Republic of Cambridge”), and to see its legacy not merely narrowly as the creators of a fine publication and website – but broadly, as touching all of the contributors and readers over the years AND all those who were taught, helped, affected by all of those contributors and readers. This expansive view (so characteristic of Ulrich), means that the embrace of Exponent II takes in Uganda’s lost girls; so many women who keep the church alive through service and charity; the “everywomen” depicted on the evening’s poster artwork – the faceless women who acquire faces when we acknowledge, listen to, and choose to remember them, whatever they have to say to us.
In the last part of her remarks, she contrasted two Mormon women to illustrate her point that “the best way to make a difference is to tell a different story.” The first was Linda Hoffman Kimball, a convert to the church who encountered women like Dushku and Bushman and Ulrich first, and only later was dismayed to learned that such vibrant and “original women” weren’t considered everyone’s idea of what women in the church should be. The second was Esther Peterson, Director of the Office of Consumer Affairs, organizer of the President’s first commission on the status of women, and longtime advocate of greater federal attention to women in the workplace – one of Ulrich’s own heroes, in great part because of her constant outward-turning impulse and her determination to do good and fight injustice, wherever it arose.
After Laurel finished, 27 of the early board members and contributors present were recognized by name, with hearty applause (we were instructed to hold our applause to the end, but we disobeyed).
The second speaker was Aimee Hickman, one of the current co-editors, and her remarks turned to Exponent II’s current status and future hopes as it tries to adapt the legacy of Ulrich’s generation – a radical project of engagement, liberation from flattened and purely devotional portrayals of Mormon women, and an attempt to see the full, diverse picture of Mormon womanhood – to our own historical moment and to set it in good stead for the future. She reflected on whether “simply” publishing and representing the full range of Mormon women’s perspectives was actually so simple, and whether the organization was somehow obligated to define an agenda, or position itself differently, or (as some have asked it) to “do more.” She then laid out a spirited defense of Exponent II’s endeavor to be a living history as a deeply, integrally feminist position, and one for which there is still an important need. She portrayed what Exponent II does (rigorous curating, publishing, purposefully striving for evenhandness) as a form of revelation, a “further revealing of womanhood.”
Lastly, we heard from Emily Clyde Curtis, who provided an overview of Exponent II’s many projects in addition to the magazine, including speaker series, digitization efforts, the retreats, a coloring book (yes, really), an expanded website with resources in languages other than English, an online store, and “multimedia storytelling” in the works.
I was impressed by the clarity of purpose and vision expressed in all the speakers’ remarks. It seems a ship was launched and capably steered for four decades without getting swamped by cultural, theological, or personality squalls, and that in itself is utterly astonishing in retrospect. I couldn’t stay much past the end of the talks (except to catch up with old friends from my own Cambridge days), but as the brass band struck up “Woman, Rise!” I caught a glimpse of the founders group photo, an image I’ll leave you with – and here’s to many more “fortieths” for Exponent II.