[We are pleased to post this book review from Hannah Jung. Hannah lives and works in Boston and will be starting her PhD in History in the fall.]
During my undergrad there was a mature student who seemed to be in all of my classes about women and religion. This woman had a particular word for whenever we studied examples of women who seemed to be furthering patriarchy. She called them brainwashed. At the time, it was hard for me to articulate why I did not like the label “brainwashed” for women who did not appear to be living life worthy of feminist praise. This task would be taken on by historians much more clever and experienced than I. Indeed, in 2011 Catherine Brekus rocked the Mormon Studies world with her Tanner Lecture “Mormon Women and the Problem of Historical Agency”, which she delivered at the Mormon History Association. Brekus observed that,
Although historians of male leaders had never felt compelled to argue that men’s agency was politically subversive or liberating … historians of overlooked groups – including women, Native Americans, African Americans, and Latina/os – were searching for a ‘usable past’ and so they looked for evidence of individual or collective resistance to a white male hegemony. (p.23)
Agency has become synonymous with the idea of resistance to and freedom from structures of power. Brekus goes on to detail a new definition of agency that accounts for not only the resistance but also the transformation and reproduction of systems of power. She defines agency being socially constrained by the historical and cultural contexts of the agent. Importantly, she reminds us that the choices of the agent do not have to be admirable. Not only does Brekus provide a framework for understanding and analyzing agency, her essay also represents a challenge to scholars to better represent their historical subjects.
The book Women and Mormonism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives directly answers this challenge and provides an impressive scope of short essays that explore different ways of understanding Mormon women’s agency. In 2012, Kate Holbrook and Matt Bowman organized a conference (not surprisingly) called “Women and Mormonism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives” that was centered on the idea of women’s agency. The book is, therefore, a collection of essays from the conference and a few extra that were solicited after the fact. Topics range from examining 19th century Relief Society quilts to the sexual agency of contemporary Mormon women. Many of the contributors in the book are familiar to me as big players in the study of Mormon women. Yet I was also surprised and pleased that the book not only explored historical accounts of women as agents, but also included contemporary oral histories and personal essays.
It is difficult to avoid a comparison between Mormon Women and Mormon Feminism, another edited volume recently published which exclusively discusses Mormon women. From its title to its cover decoration Mormon Feminism is unabashedly about feminism: it has decorated its bright pink sleeve with a picture of a quilt made with the slacks from the “Wear Pants to Church” day. On the cover of Mormon Women, a dainty hand holds an apple core and beyond it is an out-of-focus path; Eve chose to partake of the fruit, the cover tells us, now what? Mormon Feminism broadly defines feminism and casts its bright pink shadow on the influential works for and by Mormon women in the past forty years. However, Mormon Women seems to keep feminism at arm’s distance. Perhaps, by avoiding mentions of feminism, Holbrook and Bowman are trying to distance themselves from oversimplified ideas of agency. Or perhaps in a Mormon context, the topic of feminism is too divisive and difficult to define to broach in this volume. This is not to say that feminism is completely absent in the book, but that the places where it does surface are a little awkward. In the chapter “Mormon Women in Europe”, Carine Decoo- Vanwelkenhuysen discusses being unable to relate to either the politically conservative culture in Utah, or the Mormon feminist grievances that abound in the blogosphere. The only other major mention of feminism is by Catholic contributor Mary Farrell Bednarowski, who, in her chapter “Soul Sisters” compares Catholic and Mormon feminist struggles. While I am not arguing that all volumes about Mormon women need to explicitly discuss feminism, I do think that avoiding the term tends to further alienate feminism from mainstream Mormon discourse.
Appropriately, the first chapter in the book is Brekus’ “Mormon Women and the Problem of Historical Agency”, which is reproduced in full and is by far the longest essay in the book. It is both a weakness and strength that the rest of the essays are short (4-15 pages). Some chapters seem to be representative of an argument or methodological approach and sometimes, despite the length of the chapter, authors sacrifice depth for breadth. The most successful essays in the volume are those that include the voices of the women the authors discuss.
One of the strengths of the book is that despite the varied topics and methodologies, the focus on agency makes the volume cohesive. In my opinion, the book is most fertile for analysis when the chapters are put in conversation with each other. Some authors explicitly draw upon one another’s ideas. For example, Neylan McBaine and Aimee Evans Hickman both use the metaphor of a blank page to discuss the ways Mormon women understand and use agency and personal revelation. Other chapters have similar themes but show the subjects reacting in different ways. Decoo-Vanwelkenhuysen analyzes responses from European Mormon women, in light of her own experience with North American gender norms. Similarly, Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye analyzes the ways in which Asian women “choose Mormonism on their own terms and according to the values of their native culture.” (232) While Decoo-Vanwelkenhuysen emphasizes the progressive values of European Mormon women, Inouye argues that many of the Asian converts she interviewed choose Mormonism because it resembles some conservative elements from the cultures to which they are accustomed.
After I finished the book, I re-read Catherine Brekus’ chapter on agency and it made me want to read the entire book again. This is probably because I am a nerd and get really excited when thinking about Mormon women and agency. More importantly, reading Brekus’ criticism of the Mormon scholar’s tendency to romanticize women’s agency in plural marriage settings made me want to understand how Kate Holbrook and Rebekah Ryan Clark’s chapters, as well as Rachel Cope’s, re-framed the discussion of women within plural marriage. It made me appreciate Quincy D. Newell’s treatment of Jane Manning James, whose agency “entailed a complex performance of submission to Latter-day Saint authority and assertive spiritual expression.” (141) From Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye’s discussion of the relationship between culture and agency, to Kristine Wright’s examination of ritual objects, this book has many fascinating examples of scholarship of Mormon women. I also hope to see the contributors of the book further developing these ideas in the future. All in all, the content of the chapters and the conversations between chapters will give this book a long shelf life.