Feminism and Religion From a Distance: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, ?Heritage and History,? JMH 50th Roundtable

By March 19, 2015

JMH50In this personal essay, MHA president Laurel Thatcher Ulrich compares her own path into Mormon history (from Mormon Idaho native to historian of early-American women) to that of Jan Shipps (from ?Gentile? to historian of Mormonism). Shipps had called herself an ?inside-outsider? in Zion; here, Ulrich calls herself an ?outside-insider.? She is referring to the fact that she never intended to write Mormon history; rather, she had come to see herself professionally as a scholar of 17th– and 18th-century New England women. Of her recent research into her religious roots, Ulrich concludes that her training as a colonial historian has enabled her to see connections between Mormon history and American history that she otherwise would not see. She tantalizes us with allusions to her forthcoming book on the relationship between early-Mormon polygamous families and American women?s activism. Of particular interest to me in this narrative of her personal and professional development, though, is the way that distance has worked to her advantage in the writing of Mormon history.

When Utah-based historians were contributing to a renaissance in Mormon women?s history in the 1980s, Ulrich was poring over archival documents in New England. The irony is that even though her work was not on Mormon feminism, Ulrich was banned from speaking at a BYU women’s conference. Ulrich writes with some embarrassment about Shipps having singled her out, during a seeming wave of excommunications in the 1990s, as a symbol of the dangers of women’s history for the LDS Church–not that she was embarrassed by her capacity as a historian to challenge inherited sacrosanct narratives, but that she was embarrassed by being credited with having made significant contributions to Mormon history. Mormon women’s history was in the capable hands of people like Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Jill Mulvay Derr, Carol Cornwall Madsen, and Susan Staker Oman.

It wasn?t until 2005, in fact, when she was invited to speak in Salt Lake City about Leonard Arrington?s contributions to Mormon history, that she began to research and write about her own faith tradition. Approximately six years ago she decided ??to make a serious commitment to Mormon history. I am not quite sure why I decided to do that, but I can say that I am grateful that I didn?t try to do it in the 1970s when I was just beginning to study history? (Ulrich, “Heritage and History,” p. 12). Here she names two reasons for this gratitude: (1) her geographical distance from the Utah archives in the 1970s would have made the task nigh-impossible, and (2) approaching Mormon history

 ??from the outside, and in particular from early American history, helps me see things I might not otherwise have noticed. I have been confronted both by the strangeness of things I once thought I knew and by powerful relationships between the Mormon experience and broader patterns in American history, like the removal of American Indians from their communities and the instability of families in an age when self-divorce was common. I have also been struck with the pervasiveness of sentimentality in a society supposedly engaged in the restoration of patriarchy? (Ulrich, “Heritage and History,” pp. 12-13).

She doesn?t here explicitly name as a reason for her gratitude the idea that her geographical and topical distance from Utah protected her from possible censure for her work. I found myself wondering, ?Does Ulrich agree with Shipps that her work as a women?s historian poses a threat to the LDS Church?? I think Ulrich didn?t want to draw any further attention to the incident of the BYU ban because she did not personally feel the effects of this decision, unlike the scholars who were ex-communicated. She explains:

“I have lived most of my adult life in places where Latter-day Saints are few and far between. Without including everybody, there would be no choir. Obviously somebody thought I wasn’t worthy to speak at BYU, but my local leaders thought I was plenty good enough to teach seminary, Primary, Sunday School, and Relief Society. Although it was annoying to have reporters for national publication ask about the BYU ban, even years after it happened, it didn’t have any practical impact on my life” (Ulrich, “Heritage and History,” p. 12).

She doesn?t here directly comment on the relationship at the time between feminism and her own faith tradition. She simply concedes that someone had decided she shouldn?t speak at BYU. Earlier in her essay, though, of the decision to write colonial women’s history, she confesses, “I enjoyed the distance the colonial period provided on my own life and the contemporary issues that engaged me” (Ulrich, “Heritage and History,” p. 8). In other words, her study of the worlds of non-Mormon, non-twentieth-century women kept kept her own world in perspective.

I would argue, though, that by the experiences recounted in this personal essay, Ulrich is taking a position on the relationship between feminism and religion, in this case, Mormonism. If historians 100 years from now were to interpret what Ulrich?s work said about the relationship between late-twentieth-century feminism and Mormonism, they might say that her sympathetic embrace of both traditions ran counter to the then-dominant narrative of their incompatibility within Mormon circles. While we are still working with a presumption of this incompatibility, as Andrea R-M explained so beautifully here, there is evidence that the work of historians like Ulrich has gained traction with thoughtful religious leaders.

In her essay historicizing the presumption of antipathy, on one hand, between religion and twentieth-century feminism, and of sympathy, on the other, Ann Braude argues that by turning their attention to the concerns of the most active church members (women), historians of women and religion have begun to accurately nuance the story of the relationship between feminism and religion in the twentieth century. Instead of reifying the false dichotomy of (secular) feminism versus religion, explorations into what historians call ?lived religion? suggest that for many believing women, feminism and faith go hand-in-hand. When religious historians focused on what was being said in the pulpits (most often by men), they missed this idea. When women?s historians focused on secular, trailblazing women?s rights activists, they missed this idea. These kinds of important historical works perhaps inadvertently contributed to a narrative of the unbridgeable gulf between twentieth-century feminism and religion. More recently written histories of twentieth-century religious women across denominations, creeds, and communities challenge the notion that second-wave feminism made a clean break from nineteenth-century feminism?s arguably religious roots. While some writers and religious leaders may continue to preach a narrative of distrust, Ulrich demonstrates with her life story the continuity of certain forms of twentieth-century feminism with the feminism of the women she writes about in her histories.

In 1961 the historian Gladys Gilkey Calkins observed that the lack of interest in the Social Gospel by Christian preachers of the 1920s ?did not particularly affect women?s concerns about these questions.? Women continued on with their charitable work much as they had before the Social Gospel had begun to fall out of favor in the churches. ?Their approach to social issues was essentially pragmatic and not doctrinaire. Women were concerned about the welfare and needs of individuals ?.The battle of Fundamentalism versus Liberalism might rage in the pulpits?but [it] would not throw the women off course. There was too much that needed to be done.? (Calkins, as cited by Ann Braude, ?Faith, Feminism, and History,? in Catherine Brekus, Religious History of American Women (2007), pp. 248-249).

The historian Ann Braude sees Calkins?s insider perspective of women ??sympathetic to but not dependent on? the preaching of prominent theologians as a model for the project of grounding religious history in women?s presence? (Braude, ?Faith, Feminism, and History,? p. 249). Likewise, with her “outside-insider” perspective, Ulrich understands that the meaning of faith for those who enact it sometimes differs from the meaning of faith for those who preach it.


Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks, Liz. Very well done.

    Comment by J Stuart — March 20, 2015 @ 8:20 am

  2. Thanks for this, Liz.

    Comment by Ben P — March 20, 2015 @ 8:41 am

  3. Interesting! Thanks, Liz.

    Comment by Saskia — March 21, 2015 @ 9:12 am

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