Since the time I began working on my current book project on early Book of Mormon reception history, there have been individuals who have called what I am doing women’s history. I am certainly not offended by someone saying I do women’s history, I am not opposed to women’s history. I think women’s history does significant and important compensatory work to fill a historical chasm empty for too long. My Master’s thesis was clearly women’s history, I have done consistent work in that field, as well as the discipline directly informing other work that I do.
However, I’m always interested in the formal and informal categories that we construct to order the historical field and I’m wondering what makes something women’s history? As editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Joseph Spencer, introduced my recent article here for the Maxwell Institute, he complimented my work (thanks) and summarized the article: “how early converts—and especially women—approached the text of the Book of Mormon.” I suspect Joe wanted to highlight one of the things present in my article that is often absent in Mormon History, women. However, the “especially women” gave me pause. That pause has only expanded as I have heard others describe my current work as women’s history.
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?
Welcome to the eighth installment in the JI’s fourth annual summer book club. This year we are reading Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard UP, 2008). Check back every Thursday for the week’s installment. Or, you can find them here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Please follow the JI on Facebook and Twitter.
I was eight the first time I remember hiking the Timpanogos Cave National Monument. After a hike, intermittent stops for Fruit-by-the-Foot, and what seemed like an eternal wait, my family and I stepped into the dimly lit tunnel that took me into the cave. I was a little nervous that my fanny pack would bump the wall and ruin some spectacular stalactite or stalagmite, which would lead to my immediate dismissal from the Cub Scouts. Towards the end of the tour, the guide pointed to an enormous formation with a light illuminating it from behind. “This is the ‘Great Heart of Timpanogos,'” she said. She told us the legend of Utahna and sent our group back down the mountain, with me thinking about the poor princess who had been willing to give her life for her people to survive a drought.
I don’t remember hearing the story again until the summer after I read On Zion’s Mount in a Utah history course at BYU. Suddenly the Heart of Timpanogos didn’t seem so full of wonder and sacrifice, it felt like a painful reminder that the mountain was more than a tourist attraction–it was a place shaped by the interactions of indigenous people and Mormon settlers. Moreover, it was a place whose value and meaning was shaped by the nation in which it is found.
In Mormon history circles, we know Fanny Alger Custer by her birth name, Fanny Alger, and almost exclusively speak of her relationship to Joseph Smith in terms of the early history of plural marriage. She has mattered to Mormon history because of controversy surrounding this relationship, and just as briefly as the relationship may have lasted, so briefly does Fanny make an appearance in the history of the Kirtland period. The question of early Mormon polygamy overshadows the collective concern over Fanny’s life as an early Latter-day Saint woman.
But some sources do allow us to consider her independently of Joseph Smith and even get a sense of a more complete biography. I’m working on a paper that gives priority to Fanny’s perspectives and life details, and then reconsiders her relationship to Mormonism and Joseph Smith in light of those perspectives. Here is a highlight from the longer essay, something stunning from Fanny herself—her own voice.
Reproduced below are excerpts from my review of Angela Pulley Hudson’s Real Native Genius: How An Ex-Slave and a White Mormon Became Famous Indians. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015, which appeared in the most recent issue of Mormon Historical Studies. MHS kindly granted me permission to post these excerpts.
Angela Pulley Hudson’s Real Native Genius: How an Ex-Slave and a White Mormon Became Famous Indians, winner of the Evans Biography Award, is an engrossing dual biography of former-slave Warner McCary and his white wife, Lucy Stanton. Before this book, Mormon historians had known the McCarys primarily for their schismatic religious group in Winter Quarters and for their contribution to the development of the race-based priesthood and temple ban. Hudson, an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University, demonstrates in Real Native Genius that the McCarys’ Winter Quarters imbroglio was just one chapter in the lives of the couple, who subsequently reinvented themselves as “professional Indians”—Choctaw chief Okah Tubbee and Mohawk princess Laah Ceil Manatoi Tubbee—first as famous traveling performers and then as “Indian” medical practitioners. Hudson uses the couple’s gaudy lives as a window into the concept of “Indianness,” which she defines as “a wide-ranging set of ideas about how American Indians looked, talked, lived, and loved” (5). Real Native Genius is therefore one of a growing number of works that explore ways that Mormon history can illuminate broader themes in American history and culture.
I was thrilled to be able to check out the Women in Mormon Studies (WiMS) website over the weekend. It represents the labor of many women that have worked together to amplify the work of women in our beloved subfield. After looking at scholar profiles (you can add yours HERE), I’ve come to a few conclusions:
Hokulani K. Aikau’s book, A Chosen People, A Promised Land, published in 2012, is an important work on Mormonism in the Pacific, addressing the colonial legacy of the church and its racial ideologies. Back in 2013 here on this blog, Aikau’s work was listed as an important work in Mormon history and the history of indigenous peoples. But the Juvenile Instructor blog has never had a full review of Aikau’s book published. In order to fix this error, this post includes a portion of my review of Aikau’s book that was just published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Mormon History.
The LDS Church recently announced that it will be severing its ties with the Boy Scouts of America and is creating a new program for all the children and youth in the Church. With this announcement, there have been discussions (here and here) about what these changes could mean for the youth programs in the Church, particularly for young women. Knowing the history of the LDS youth programs for the past one hundred years can help put all of these recent announcements in perspective.
On Tuesday the Church Newsroom announced a “Plan for Worldwide Initiative for Children and Youth”. On the associated FAQ page it says that, among others, the “Personal Progress” program “may be affected by this change” beginning in 2020. In a preliminary effort to better understand the context for these potential changes, I looked at what has been said about Personal Progress in General Conference (or, at least, has been published in the Conference Report editions of the Ensign).
[This is the fourth in our week-long roundtable on Jonathan Stapley’s The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology(Oxford University Press). You should make sure to read Tona’s post here, Joey’s post here and Janiece’s here. Building on their excellent reviews, I’d like to focus my remarks on a couple questions Stapley’s book raised.]
Modern Mormon discourse often revolves around the priesthood. Does the LDS Church’s conception of the priesthood lead to too much of a hierarchical organization? Does it inevitably result in abuses of power? Does it make gender equality impossible?
Jonathan Stapley’s new book does not seek to answer these questions. He makes it clear in the introduction that he wishes to steer clear of the political implications of Mormonism’s priesthood tradition. But what he does is destabilize the very conception of the “priesthood” itself. For the church’s first century, early Mormons believed in what Stapley calls a “cosmological priesthood,” a heavenly network that bound individuals together in order to form a communal salvific unit. Mormons were, quite explicitly, creating the celestial kingdom, and the priesthood served as ligaments holding everything together. But starting during the progressive era, members of the faith shifted toward an ecclesiastical framework for understanding the priesthood, a paradigm that focused entirely on ecclesiastical offices held by men. That shift eventually led to the Mormonism of today.