Mormon women’s history is alive and thriving, as seen in the rich and diverse offerings at the 2012 Mormon History Association conference in Calgary, Alberta. Out of forty sessions within the two-day period, a full four sessions were entirely devoted to women’s historical and/or contemporary activities, with another three panels examining early Mormon marital practices and broader examinations of polygamy. And, in the spirit of heralding any efforts to de-ghettoize women’s history, it is always promising to see single papers incorporated throughout other non-gender panels, including Mary Jane Woodger’s paper on Alberta women and glossolalia as part of the session “Sugar, Basketball, and the Gift of Tongues in Southern Alberta,” and the always-brilliant David Hall providing a new look at Amy Brown Lyman’s mission in Europe in the 1930s, in the panel, “Ministering in Europe.” Hall showed how Lyman struggled to encourage European women’s unity in the face of national and class differences, and also struggled to adapt Relief Society charity work to the existing structures of European state welfare programs. Lisa Tait’s paper on Susa Young Gates’s activities in Hawaii fit nicely in “Mormonism in the Pacific”—I love to see how Lisa has explored Susa’s racializing of Hawaiian natives, putting Mormon women squarely within late-19th-century notions of American imperialism and white exceptionalism. And J.I.’s own Amanda Hendrix-Komoto brought new light to how Mary Fielding Smith navigated through her own conversion and the loss of her family by trying to maintain connections to extended relations and rebuild a new sense of family in Nauvoo, even as she entered into polygamy together with her sister, Mercy.
Some other highlights for me from the women’s history panels: Susanna Morrill explored women’s dreams as sources for inspired creativity and spiritual renewal—even pithily tying dream revelation to how Stephanie Meyer got her ideas for the Twilight series. Kristine Wright brilliantly examined women’s interactions with ritual and sacred objects of worship to reveal broader areas of lived religion for LDS women. Women’s involvement in the physical symbols of the sacrament like the bread baking and making or cleaning linens received much audience discussion, especially in how some of those activities have eroded over time in favor of more Aaronic Priesthood supervision. Jenny Reeder masterfully teased out meanings of individual quilt squares in the SLC 20th Ward Album Quilt, showing sometimes overt and sometimes hidden symbols of patriotism, polygamous sisterhood, and memorializing the Nauvoo Relief Society. Boyd Peterson used textual analysis to show how early Mormon women reimagined Eve and the Fall for their various purposes, including celebrating domesticity and defending polygamy. David Pulsipher exposed an unsung and short-lived period of Mormon women’s peace activism between 1898 and 1910. To David, this activism reveals a Mormon theology of peace that just couldn’t last in the midst of devastating 20th-century world wars (but which many of us would love to recapture in current LDS discourse. For more on David’s research, see his JI post here.) My own paper examined the importance of elite Mormon women’s and men’s birthday celebrations in the 19th century as places for commemorating the Restoration myths and “Joseph stories” for younger generations, but also for creating shared gender spaces where men and women together expressed spiritual gifts.
MHA was also pleased to welcome some established scholars in other areas of women’s history to our circles, with Sarah Carter of the University of Alberta and Sarah Pearsall of Oxford-Brookes University presenting with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in the panel, “Not Just Mormons: Arguments over Polygamy, 1780-1900,” as well as Mary Murphy of Montana State University commenting on our panel, “Peace, Parties, and Pieces: Memory and Activism in Mormon Women’s Circles.” Carter examined how the Mormons’ presence in southern Alberta heightened the Canadian government’s anxieties over polygamy, leading to stricter attempts by the Department of Indians Affairs to enforce monogamy among Blackfoot Indians. I’ll be honest– this kind of scholarship is what gets me all tingly, to see the intersections of Mormon and western history, and even better, Canadian western history. At one point during the Q&A time, Mary Murphy asked a question from the audience. Carter blurted out, “Mary, is that you? I didn’t know you were here!” Backstory: Carter and Murphy are colleagues in western women’s history, both participants in the Coalition for Western Women’s History (I’m also a member), and both newcomers to MHA, so certainly unaccustomed to seeing each other in that context. I only tell that anecdote to illustrate the insularity that has sometimes plagued Mormon women’s history. We’re really good at writing biography, narratives, and institutional history to each other, but sometimes we’ve been a bit slow to engage (or, in fairness, slow to be engaged by other scholars) in the broader gendered examinations of Mormon women’s experiences in the West, in America, and trans-nationally. Staci Ford of the University of Hong Kong—also an MHA newcomer—in responding to “Revelation, Relief Society, and Conversion: Global Perspectives from Modern LDS Women,” encouraged Mormon women’s historians to not shy away from incorporating comparative feminism(s)—because, feminism encompasses multiple definitions and uses, as well as divergent national perspectives—in their studies of the past, and especially in seeing how class structures and racial hierarchies have informed women’s experiences. It is encouraging to see such exchanges between historians of Mormon women and those who bring more complex feminist frameworks to the study of LDS women’s past and present.
Support for Mormon women’s history was evidenced by the high attendance of 72—almost 20% of total conference attendees—at the yearly Women’s History breakfast on Saturday morning, sponsored by the Mormon Women’s History Initiative Team, and chaired by Cherry Silver. We felt honored that Elder Snow joined us as well, a first for a Church Historian. Breakfast activities included discussions of current and future progress of the CHL’s Women of Faith series, by Brittany Chapman, an update on the documentary history of the Relief Society, by Kate Holbrook, and a lively discussion of the importance of Mormon women’s objects, by Jenny Reeder. And Lisa Clayton gave an important shout-out to the ongoing work of the Howard W. Hunter Mormon Women Oral Histories Project at Claremont Graduate University. At the Friday night awards ceremony, M.W.H.I.T. was also pleased to award its Silver Award for Best Article on Mormon Women’s History to Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright for last year’s JMH article, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism.” While we regretted the absence of our senior scholars like Carol Cornwall Madsen, Jill Mulvay Derr, Kathleen Flake, and Claudia Bushman at this year’s MHA, still we honor these women for the groundwork they have laid for new scholarship, and for continuing to add fresh perspectives to the experiences of Mormon women worldwide. We also did not get to hear from Kathy Daynes this year, but we look forward with anticipation to hers and Sally Gordon’s much-anticipated work on Mormon women and polygamy. Similar to what’s going on in Mormon Studies as a whole, Mormon women’s history needs to be building upon the detailed archival knowledge of our more experienced historians, while also adding new perspectives, theories and contexts to the study of women. I’m encouraged by the use of frameworks like race theory, material culture analysis, memory construction, gender and sexuality, textual criticism, and of course, new examinations of how women are sharing authority and agency within the patriarchy, or are reduced by it. I invite respondents to this post to highlight their favorite women’s history moments at MHA this year, or to respectfully call attention to areas where we might be falling short, as well as offering suggestions for where the field can go in the future, especially in conference presentations.