We might be a little late kicking off our Women’s History Month events here at the Juvenile Instructor. But our spirit is willing, and we still have sufficient time that we are pleased to offer your some significant contributions on Mormon women’s history from Jonathan Stapley, Amanda Hendrix-Komoto, guest blogger David Pulsipher, myself, and others. National Women’s History Month should be even more important to Mormons, intersecting as it does with the yearly March anniversary of the founding of the female Relief Society of Nauvoo. While the latter is given varying degrees of attention depending upon the particular ward or branch and its available resources, the former is sometimes dismissed as a tool of feminist political correctness. Still, I think the correlation of the two provides unique opportunities for LDS scholars to broaden our understanding of women’s experiences in the past, and to look for new ways to honor their contributions, spirituality, and sociality.
In recent years, we have come so far in our telling of the Mormon past through women’s eyes. But we have so far yet to go. That’s partly what prompted my own interest in looking at Lucy Emily Woodruff Smith’s 1893-94 diary here and here. I’m also looking forward to today’s post by Jonathan Stapley here, which gives us some more findings on his ongoing important research regarding Mormon women’s ritual healing, and don’t forget to go back and read Rachael’s thought-provoking post about gender in Mormon theology.
I am fascinated by Relief Society birthday celebrations. They can range from lavish sit-down dinner parties to elaborate and well-organized humanitarian efforts to spiritual firesides meant to build testimony. And sometimes RS birthday focus on simple homemaking skills or “craftsy” activities that are popular among LDS women in particular. As much as I may favor the more substantive intellectual or service-type of RS celebration, I still accept that all are valid, because they represent the honest desires, interests and experiences of Mormon women.
I recently attended my own ward Relief Society party, in which I gave the opening talk on . . . what else? . . . a history of Mormon women and birthday parties. This is part of my current research in preparation for the upcoming MHA conference, in which I will look at elite Mormon birthday celebrations as forms of shared gendered space wherein male and female leaders came together to remember the Restoration, to pass their testimonies and memories of Joseph and Hyrum Smith to younger generations, to express spiritual gifts like prayer and speaking in tongues, but also just to party. (I hope to share some of my findings in an upcoming post here on JI.)
But in keeping with the “domestic” direction of many modern RS meetings, I also learned some useful tips on planning children’s birthdays, and I got to practice some cake-decorating skills . But I felt so honored that my RS presidency invited my participation as a historian in our event. Sometimes we miss opportunities to challenge ourselves intellectually, to teach about our historical legacies, and to discover the important in the trivial. In spite of well-meaning intentions toward many RS festivities, I have sometimes heard these March events derided as a frivolous, superficial or girly ways to honor women of the Church. Or, I’ve heard some men say, “Well, we don’t have parties to honor the restoration of the Priesthood.” But these complaints fall on my deaf ears (especially because we remember the Priesthood restoration all of the time.) Since we still have so far to go in our telling of Mormon women’s past, I’ll take a once-a-year activity—no matter how fluffy—to remind members that we Mormon women do indeed have a past worth remembering. Now, if we could just recognize that Mormon women have a history that extends beyond 1847, we’ll also be making some great progress. I long for the day that average church members can rattle off the general RS presidents just as easily as they do the presidents of the church, that average Mormon women and men know about our unheralded and forgotten participation in suffrage, politics, and peace activism, as well as our history of sharing powerful spiritual gifts, sometimes even together with men, as Jonathan will discuss today. So as we plunge into our March festivities here at the JI, let us remember that there is power in telling all women’s experiences, and that finding meaning in those experiences moves us just a little bit closer in recovering our feminine past.