By January 24, 2019
At the beginning of chapter 9 of her book Sister Saints, Colleen McDannell incorporates a particular quote by Aileen H. Clyde. Clyde was a counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency when the Proclamation on the Family was released. As McDannell explains, the Proclamation was presented as a fait accompli to Clyde, her fellow counselor Chieko Okazaki, and President Elaine L. Jack. Their input was not sought, despite the gendered subject matter and the arguably important role Mormon women play in shaping Mormon families. In a 2011 interview, Clyde characterized women’s domains within the church as a “playpen,” saying, “[male leaders] don’t care what we do over here in our playpen as long as we stay in our playpen and are good to each other” (qtd. in McDannell 154).
This was a telling quote, and an unusually candid one, that highlighted the infantilization of women in the LDS Church. Much has written about power structures in the LDS Church, men’s and women’s spheres, the hierarchy inherent in a male priesthood, and the like. McDannell adds to this academic discourse with an in-depth discussion of the Proclamation on the Family. As McDannell writes, the Proclamation on the Family has an almost canonical status in LDS culture. It reflects and drives Mormon discourse about gender and sexuality and helps define what a divinely ordained family looks like. It can be found framed in so many Mormon homes and its ubiquity is a material marker of Mormonism as real as garments or visible adherence to the Word of Wisdom.
A strength of this chapter is the care McDannell takes to flesh out the role that a binary, dualistic, and essentalist idea of gender plays in Mormonism. She contrasts that with the ideas found in conservative and fundamentalist Protestantism, pointing out that Latter-day Saint ideas about gender largely align with those found in the ideology of complementarianism in conservative Christianity. However, where complementarians speak of ‘headship,’ of a fundamental and God-given “asymmetry in power relationships in the home” in which wives submit to their husbands, Latter-day Saints consider Mormon men and women to be ‘equal partners’ at home (160). McDannell is right to point out this difference, as it has real effects, both on a theological level and a practical level. Latter-day Saint gender relations, then, are their own thing and can’t be mapped neatly onto those of other groups.
McDannell organizes her discussion of the Proclamation around the idea of a “theology of silence.” That is, the Proclamation displays “ambiguity, restraint, and brevity” (155) and “speaks louder in what it does not say than what it does” (165, italics original). The Proclamation doesn’t contain anti-gay rhetoric, rather, it celebrates the heterosexual family. More than that, McDannell argues that the silence extends to the gendering of men and women themselves: “[h]ow a father presides and a mother nurtures is not laid out” (165). This is particularly noteworthy given the “elaborate, and typically conservative, reflections of prominent church leaders” such as Boyd K. Packer and others who reach back to an imagined and nostalgic American past.
There is a lot going on in this chapter that deserves further thought, but today I want to briefly touch on this idea of a theology of silence, of the institutional forgetting of the rhetoric that came before. McDannell is right that this leaves room for (heterosexual) families to define for themselves what it means to nurture or to provide, for example. This also explains how the Proclamation can resonate with all kinds of (again, heterosexual) families and be found proudly displayed in the homes of stay at home moms as well as career-driven women. However, I would argue that while absent in the Proclamation, these messages and the larger discourse surrounding gender roles in the church is present in so many other avenues that members know how to read it into the text—particularly in the American church and even more so in the ‘Book of Mormon belt.’ Ultimately, the messages do not have to be spoken in this specific text for them to be heard. That the Proclamation speaks of ‘equal partners,’ yet fathers are to ‘preside,’ is telling language which speaks volumes here, and I would have liked to see that dissonant note teased out a little more.
The Proclamation on the Family allows for diversity to exist: as McDannell writes, “It did not encourage […] multiplicity, but it did recognize—via its theology of silence—the complexity of Mormon lives” (170). I would argue that it’s significant that this is not affirmation, but tolerance. The theology of silence in the Proclamation allows diversity in families to exist in that space (or perhaps, better said, does not deny or condemn the existence of diversity), but I would again argue that this same silence is drowned out by official discourse. Towards the end of the chapter, McDannell writes that the Proclamation paved the way for other institutional efforts to celebrate diversity, like the Meet the Mormons movie or the larger I’m a Mormon ad campaign. This is a very apt characterization, as the careful watcher of the 2014 movie will see diversity in skin color, nationality, and circumstances, yes, but also notice that this is a diversity very narrowly defined and very carefully curated. In that sense, I am interested in seeing what happens when a younger generation—increasingly comfortable with and affirming of LGBTQ people, for example—comes of age. Will the Proclamation continue to resonate so powerfully with members—will a theology of silence be enough?
By September 5, 2018
Kurt Manwaring published an interview with friend-of-the-blog Barbara Jones Brown about her work as Mormon History Association’s Executive Director at his blog, From the Desk. I can’t wait to see where Barbara takes MHA in her tenure as ED!
By August 30, 2018
Over the past nine weeks, we have made our way through Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard UP, 2008). In On Zion’s Mount, as we have learned, Farmer discusses the way Native and Mormon groups imagined and reimagined the geographical spaces among which they lived. Today we discuss chapter nine, “Performing a Remembered Past”; next week, watch this space for Jared Farmer’s response to our efforts here.
(Previous posts in the series: introduction; chapter one, chapter two, chapter three, chapter four, chapter five, chapter six, chapter seven, chapter eight.)
By June 6, 2018
MHA is one of my favorite conferences. People are friendly and approachable, there are always a wide variety of panels, and it’s a great place to catch up on what’s happening in Mormon Studies. That said, MHA is also a very Mormon space. Here are four tips for getting through MHA with your Gentile-ness intact.
By April 17, 2018
I’d like to draw your attention to two recent interviews that may be of interest to Mormon history enthusiasts. Kurt Manwaring interviewed Patrick Mason, Howard H. Hunter chair of the Mormon Studies program at Claremont Graduate University–it’s worth reading for Mason’s thoughts on what Mormon Studies is, what Mormons don’t necessary talk about (but should!), and the question Mason would ask Ezra Taft Benson if he could! (It begs the question: if you could ask a historical figure one question, who would it be and what would you want to know?)
Then, Kurt also interviewed Sara Martin, editor of the John Adams Papers, who talks about her work, archives and technology, Abigail Adams–and the Joseph Smith papers project. Head here to find out more.
By February 27, 2018
Friend of the blog Kurt Manwaring has published an interview with the historians Matt Grow and Eric Smith about their work on the Council of Fifty minutes. The interview in its entirety can be found here; selected snippets are published below. Enjoy, then hop on over to read all ten questions!
By July 30, 2017
This is the ninth entry in the Third Annual Summer Book Club at Juvenile Instructor. This year we are reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich?s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women?s Rights in Early Mormonism (Knopf, 2017). Check back every Sunday for the week?s installment! Please follow the book club and JI on Facebook.
In the previous chapter, we followed Mormon pioneers on the trail west. In Chapter Nine, Ulrich uses the theme of women using their pens as weapons, often aimed at their spouses, other times employed as a kind of self-defense. For example, Augusta Cobb longed to be independent, but found herself needing to defer to both her husband and his plural wives and failing at both. Ulrich weaves together Augusta’s personal circumstances with a larger reflection on the tensions caused by plural marriage in Utah and beyond. Not one to bow down and suffer in silence, her writings to her husband, Brigham Young, reflect either her inability or unwillingness to play by the rules that got things done in Zion–not only did she not submit silently to her husband, but as Ulrich writes, by refusing to participate in the sister-wife system, she took herself out of the political and economic flow, leaving her with few resources and an increasing frustration over the paradoxes and hardships of female independence and existence in Zion.
By May 19, 2017
This summer, Juvenile Instructor is hosting a series on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s new and long-awaited book A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism. (The first two posts of the series can be found here and here.)
Many of you will have already learned the devastating news that the Ulrichs’ son Nathan, died in a plane crash in the Bahamas earlier this week, along with his girlfriend and her two sons. Out of respect for this immense loss, we will be pausing our discussion of Laurel’s book, to be resumed at a later date. Please keep an eye on our Facebook page for more information on this hiatus.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the family, their friends, and loved ones at this time.
By March 7, 2017
Welcome to the eighth installment of our Tuesdays with Orsi series! We’re taking a look at the seventh chapter of Robert Orsi’s History and Presence, and as Hannah introduced last week, today’s discussion will be on the meaning of abundant evil. Previous installments can be found here: Intro, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, and Chapter 6.
Where chapter six took on the idea of heaven, this chapter deals more with hell. What happens, Orsi asks, when the abundant event believers encounter is an evil one? He uses the stories of men and women who were sexually abused as children to tease out the question of presence and abundance in light of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
By July 4, 2016
Click here for part one, two, three, and four of this year’s summer book club.
I have a magnet of Emma Smith on my fridge. It?s the lone souvenir of the church history trip I took in the summer of 2014, from Palmyra all the way down to Nauvoo, and I bought it at the Community of Christ-operated shop in Nauvoo. Emma?s portrait stares at me, amongst the magnets commemorating visits to national parks and museums, pictures of my family, postcards my friends send me from far-away places, and the coupons I can never remember to use before they expire. I deliberately did not buy the portrait of Joseph Smith. As a non-Mormon, Joseph is mostly irrelevant to my life, except in the ways he matters to those that matter to me. But Emma, Emma I feel for. And thus she has a place in my kitchen, and I was excited to start this year?s book club selection.