[The following is a guest post from our good friend and former co-blogger Kris Wright.]
In the first sentence of the introduction to Women and Things 1750-1950: Gendered Material Strategies, editors Maureen Daly Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin write
This volume takes as its object of investigation the overlooked and often despised categories of women’s decorative arts and homecraft activities as sites of important cultural and social work.
I will admit that when I read that, I thought it might be a bit of hyperbole – neglected, yes, but despised? That seemed like an exaggeration. However after listening to President Elaine S. Dalton’s Conference address, “We Are Daughters of Our Heavenly Father” and observing some of the online reaction to it, I am starting to wonder if despised is actually a good descriptor. Such reaction can shed light on why modern historians ignore Mormon women or have a difficult time integrating them into their work.
As Catherine Brekus has pointed out, those who do women’s history have frequently associated historical agency with freedom, empowerment, intentionality and contesting male authority. Women who reproduce and uphold conservative religious structures present a serious challenge to this model of interpreting the past and are difficult to cast as historical agents. Brekus encourages historians to recognize that “habitual and routinized activities are not devoid of agency” while also acknowledging the idea that historical agency exists on a continuum. Mormon historians cannot ignore the very real limitations on women’s agency and need to be wary of using an emancipatory model of history to describe the constraints of religious structures and cultural beliefs as liberating.
Women’s crafts and domestic work certainly fit into this difficult category. The mundane materials and processes that often define women’s work make them unworthy of study to many scholars. However, objects, even (especially!) everyday, domestic ones, can be a primary form of evidence for understanding religion as lived experience and sheds light on what believers do with material things. President Dalton’s story is actually an excellent example of how everyday people engage in religious meaning-making. She states:
Several years ago, as this conference center was being built and nearing completion, I entered this sacred building on the balcony level in a hard hat and safety glasses, ready to vacuum the carpet that my husband was helping to install. Where the rostrum now stands, there was front-end loader moving dirt and the dust in this building was thick. It settled – and when it did so, it settled on the new carpet. My part was to vacuum. And so I vacuumed, and vacuumed and vacuumed. After 3 days, my little vacuum burned up. The afternoon before the first General Conference in this beautiful building, my husband called me. He was about to install the last piece of carpet under this historic pulpit. He asked, “What scripture should write on the back of this carpet?” And I said “”Mosiah 18: 9: Stand as a witness of God, at all times and in all things and in all places.”
This story bears many of the hallmarks of how people transform things into more than physical objects and is reminiscent of how men and women throughout Mormon history have viewed their labour in constructing sacred spaces as part of their religious consecration . Sacred texts or symbols are transferred onto woven fabric (or a text/ile) changing their meaning and relationship to the believer. Cleaning and caring for sacred space deeply influences the felt-life of belief. The act of vacuuming the carpet in a religious building or writing a scripture on the back of a piece of carpet becomes central to the construction of a religious identity and these physical interactions “tirelessly educate the ear, the fingers, the palette, the posture and the gesture and contribute to the slow sedimentary development of belief.” The carpet in the Conference Center becomes a sacred object.
The fact that the primary material object in this story is a carpet is another way that President Dalton connects with the Mormon past. The creation and installation of carpets in sacred buildings actually has a long history, particularly within the realm of building tabernacles and temples. Day after day in March 1878, Samuel Roskelley wrote details about the carpet for the Logan Temple in his journal. Roskelley worked with women from the Cache Stake, who feverishly toiled to finish sewing textiles, install carpets and clean the temple. On March 14 1878, he noted, “I hurried the workmen out of the washing rooms on the north side of Temple basement and about 10 o’clock the following named sisters came to work …. And proceeded … to cut and sew homemade carpet for the washing rooms.” Such work can hardly be described as challenging religious structures, but it is still the work that Mormon women performed. It’s meaning and limitations need to be reckoned with and acknowledged as a form of embodied religion.
If scholars are only going to study or place value upon interactions with objects that happen within institutional or liturgical settings, they are going to miss many of the other ways that belief is embodied and practiced. Most Mormon women did not have the same experience of historical agency as their male counterparts, yet they still engaged in activities where they were able to create religious meaning. One just needs a different lens to perceive them. They experienced the transcendent in the form of the yeasty aroma of the kneading process as they baked Sacrament bread for their communities. They felt warm, soapy water, and heard the sound of clinking glass cups as they cared for sacrament vessels. They threaded needles, cut out religious clothing and felt the texture of rags that they wove into carpets. The work of baking, washing dishes, sewing and cleaning can present difficulties for modern historians as they attempt to integrate Mormon women into the narrative history of the church or into the larger field of American religious history. However, when historians recognize these activities as significant religious and artistic work that produced objects of material culture and reveal embodied belief, it becomes easier to recognize these women and their material practices as central to Mormon history.
Disclaimer: I outsource vacuuming to my children as often as possible.
 Goggin, Maureen Daly, and Beth Fowkes Tobin, eds. Women and Things, 1750-1950: Gendered Material Strategies. Farnham, (Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2009), p. 6.
 Brekus, Catherine, “Mormon Women and the Problem of Historical Agency” Journal of Mormon History, Volume 37, Number 2, Spring 2011,
 While some might simply see the Conference Center as a meeting place for large groups, there can be little doubt that it was envisioned to be a sacred building. President Gordon B. Hinckley tied the building of the Conference Center to the historic structures that were important to the communal history of Mormon meetings [the Bowery and the Salt Lake City Tabernacle], to the entry into the Salt Lake Valley [ground broken on the 150th anniversary] as well as statements from Church President Brigham Young and Apostle James A. Talmadge which were seen as prophetic. See Gordon B. Hinckley, “To All the World in Testimony” Saturday Morning Session, General Conference, April 2000 (link). President Hinckley remarked, | “We did not know it at the time, but in 1853 Brigham Young, in speaking of temples, said, “The time will come when … we shall build … on the top, groves and fish ponds” (Deseret News Weekly, 30 Apr. 1853, 46). Also, “In 1924 Elder James E. Talmage of the Council of the Twelve wrote, “I have long seen the possible erection of a great pavilion on the north side of the Tabernacle, seating perhaps twenty thousand people or even double that number, with amplifiers capable of making all hear the addresses given from the Tabernacle stands, and in addition to this a connection with the broadcasting system, with receivers in the several chapels or other meeting houses throughout the intermountain region” (journal of James E. Talmage, 29 Aug. 1924, Special Collections and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah).
 Goggin, Maureen Daly, “An Essamplaire Essai on the Rhetoricity of Needlework Sample-Making: A Contribution to Theorizing and Historicizing Rhetorical Practice,” Rhetoric Review 21 (2002):p., 312.
 Morgan, David, Ed. Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief. (New York: Rutledge, 2010), p. 8
 The women were Clara Bench Jeppsen, Amanda Eliason Benson, Anne Anderson Frank, Martha Eylan Reese, Mary Ann French Farnes, Anna Maria Johnson, all from the Logan 1st Ward. Samuel Roskelley : papers and temple records, 1862-1962. (COLL MSS 65). Utah State University. Special Collections and Archives Department.