How Deep Is Your Mormon Women’s History?

By August 6, 2011

In Claudia Bushman’s 2010 article for Dialogue, “Should Mormon Women Speak Out?” 41 (1): 171-184 – and by the way, the answer is yes – she writes,

I grew up in the Church but knew nothing of LDS women?s history. I did not know that the Relief Society operated cooperative stores, spun and wove silk fabric (including hatching the silkworms from eggs and feeding them on mulberry leaves that they gathered by hand), gleaned the fields to save grain for bad times, and trained as midwives and doctors. I didn?t know that they were the first women in the United States to vote, even though Wyoming?s women were first to receive the right to vote. I didn?t know that they edited their own excellent newspaper or that they had large meetings when they spoke up for their rights and beliefs as citizens and as Mormons. Finding all this out was part of our Boston women?s study [in the 1970s]. One of our women discovered bound volumes of the Woman?s Exponent, the newspaper edited by Lula Greene Richards and Emmeline B. Wells (1872?1914) in the Harvard library. She copied out sections; and we found in our foremothers who spoke out the models we were searching for in our own lives.

What strikes me about this observation is how true it STILL is, even in 2011. I daresay there are not nearly enough Mormons who are even dimly aware of the stories Claudia has sketched out here. Too few of these nuggets make it into LDS lessons, General Conference talks, Primary sharing times, visiting teaching messages, church magazine articles, camp or youth conference devotionals, Seminary manuals, or Sunday School curricula. Little of this finds its way into secular US history survey courses and textbooks (Mormon women, if they show up at all, vanish after the 19th century in such works). I know this is a crowd skewed towards the incredibly knowledgeable, but I’m talking here about general knowledge. Is it too much of a generalization to say that the vast majority of Mormons, and in particular Mormon women, draw a blank on their own foremothers’ history? If not, I would love to be proven wrong. But if so, I am curious why this lacuna persists, a full generation and more after the social history turn and the outstanding scholarship of many dedicated historians.

What think ye? Is this amnesia or willful forgetting? Androcentrism or correlative imperative or just a reflection of the low priority for the sacralization of the history of ordinary members regardless of their gender? Would the Church be different if these were all well-told tales, and if so – how could we get there from here?

Article filed under Gender


  1. Tona, this is a great first post. Thanks.

    Too few of these nuggets make it into LDS lessons, General Conference talks, Primary sharing times, visiting teaching messages, church magazine articles, camp or youth conference devotionals, Seminary manuals, or Sunday School curricula.

    I’d go so far as to say that even in spite of the wonderful work done on the subject of Mormon women’s history over the past 40 years or so, that too few of these nuggets make it into much Mormon scholarship. Instead of integrating Mormon women’s history into the central narrative of the LDS past, they are continually relegated to a separate chapter in survey texts (if even that). If LDS scholars want to spearhead or assistant in the effort to make sure the lives and stories of Mormon women are included in official church curricula, they (we) may want to begin by making sure to include those lives, stories, voices, and experiences into our scholarship.

    And I say this as someone embarrassed by how little attention I paid to the experiences, writings, and voices of early Mormon women in my own MA thesis and related research. It’s something I’m working to rectify as I revise some of that research for publication.

    Comment by Christopher — August 6, 2011 @ 10:11 pm

  2. Great reminder and call to improve. There’s a source issue for those of us interested in history of ideas. Theological tracts are plentiful and easily accessible while good social history takes more work. Not an excuse, just an admission of lack of time/commitment to go the extra mile. The translation project will be hard to fix, but the next project, on digestion, will have a lot more women’s history.

    Comment by smb — August 6, 2011 @ 11:20 pm

  3. Tona, what do you think of Julie Beck’s call to re-emphasize the history of the Relief Society in official venues, texts, and meetings? I suspect part of the issue here may be that the sort of public history of the sort Claudia calls for is very much a usable past, and I wonder how much of the stuff you sketch out here is actually usable.

    Comment by matt b — August 7, 2011 @ 12:25 am

  4. I believe that the ripple effect of gender history is being felt in most kinds of historical writing today. And I agree with you that this trend hasn’t really seeped into school textbooks just yet.
    But I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as a uniquely Mormon problem. I can say that in my homeland, Israel, it’s pretty much the same. The women in this country have a long and interesting history, not at all separate from that of men’s. They worked side by side with men in almost every aspect of life, including one woman who was elected prime-minister. And yet, women are suspiciously absent from textbooks. Like you said, it’s mostly the case with general knowledge. I just hope that the discourse in the halls of academia will make their way to the textbooks themselves.

    Comment by Nathaniel — August 7, 2011 @ 4:00 am

  5. They also had one of the country’s longest running magazines. After the exponent ended in 1914, the Relief Society Magazine started in 1915. And it existed until 1972. If you can find copies of them, they are fascinating. My wife and I used to run a website called, that was a little before it’s time. It was an online magazine and social network that was articles contributed by members. I think the main Relief Society should bring back the original.

    Comment by Brett — August 7, 2011 @ 10:49 am

  6. In my work on early Mormonism in the Philadelphia area, I’m working to say as much about women as I can think of, but I just don’t have many sources. I have very few primary documents written by women and those that I have are brief. The documents written by men mostly talk about men. I don’t think that this tendency is uncommon. I blogged about it here.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 7, 2011 @ 10:59 am

  7. I think a large part is there is still a dichotomous view in interpreting the LDS past: there is “Mormon History,” and “Mormon Women’s History”–I don’t think the two have merged yet, and a large part of that is stubborn historians like myself who fail to ask relevant questions. Like smb and Chris, though, I’m trying to rectify it.

    I think it is just a result of a lack of consciousness on historians’ part. Hopefully that will change soon.

    Comment by Ben Park — August 7, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

  8. I taught Church History (1845-1900) last fall semester at BYU, and worked really hard to make sure class lectures and discussions included as much about women as men. For some students, that was a hard sale; to them, mentioning women as often as men meant I was teaching a women’s history class, and they hadn’t signed up for “women’s history.” The vast majority of the students, however, were delighted with the content, and kept asking why they had never heard anything about women before. I remember one (male) student sending me an email that said something like, “I can’t believe no one teaches this stuff. The women rock.” Amen! 🙂

    In order to change things, I think we have to change how we think. We need to ask different kinds of questions -questions that will change how we teach and how and what we write (both in academic and lay settings). Even students who do not become academics will teach in various church callings over the course of a lifetime – think dominoes!!

    Comment by Rachel — August 7, 2011 @ 5:55 pm

  9. Great reminder.

    As many have mentioned, there are challenges; but female voices are becoming more and more accessible (and consequently easier to integrate into our narratives). I’m particularly grateful for that, and I am looking forward to more (like the forthcoming RS Docs volumes).

    As to the stories that are told in our faith community…they are often ones that are deemed useful in some way by the institution (even if they aren’t true, like the china-for-the-temple-walls story).

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 7, 2011 @ 7:29 pm

  10. Great questions, Tona. I agree with the commenters above that this is partly an issue of which stories are deemed worthy of inclusion and which aren’t. Sometimes women show up-like Mary Rollins saving the Book of Commandments manuscript, Amanda Barnes Smith at Haun’s Mill, and Mary Fielding Smith with the ox on the trail. These stories all fit within traditional narratives of faith that don’t challenge other goals of socialization or the “proper” place for women. It is unfortunate that as a people we rely so heavily on official sources for our collective memory, and that there aren’t more independent ways to perpetuate our stories.

    Comment by David G. — August 7, 2011 @ 8:55 pm

  11. The Mary Fielding oxe story is fascinating because she didn’t administer to the animal, yet the narrative persists. Lavina has done some good work on this; but I’m still very interested in why the folk narrative has so much traction.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 7, 2011 @ 9:29 pm

  12. Question: is this post title ripped from the Bee Gees?

    Comment by Steve Evans — August 8, 2011 @ 10:33 am

  13. I had some shallow awareness, twenty to thirty years ago, of all those things mentioned in the Bushman quote, and likely a search through standard Church publications would find mentions of all of them. Perhaps such things had some currency in the 1980s due to Claudia Bushman and others bringing them up in the 1970s and as aftermath to the ERA with the Church proclaiming how great it is to be a Mormon woman.

    Comment by John Mansfield — August 8, 2011 @ 11:15 am

  14. Good questions, Tona. One part of the problem that came to light in my research is that there was was almost a 20 to 1 ratio of men to women on the 1873 Arizona mission, and only one of the women that I found had left any written record. Fortunately, that woman was my great-grandmother, and she had details often overlooked by the men. Much of our 19th century primary sources are written my men, about men, and it takes some work to find the apparently much smaller but hugely valuable stuff written and recorded by women.

    I also suspect, which has been the case in my wife’s family, that there are lot of primary documents out there written by women that have not been deemed valuable enough to donate to the CHL or made available to other research institutions. Juanita Brooks did a good job of ferreting a lot of those out for St. George and the surrounding Dixie country in the 1930’s when a lot of that was still available. How much has been lost due to neglect or not assigning enough value?

    Comment by kevinf — August 8, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

  15. Our RS President taught a lesson yesterday based on a dozen brief glimpses of women mentioned in the post-gospel New Testament (Lois, Eunice, Priscilla, Lydia, etc.) I’ve heard talks and read articles on those same women any number of times before, so I was struck that it seemed to be new to so many women in the room. They were enthusiastic, and some were taking notest furiously, asking how the RSPres had learned about these women (um, by reading the New Testament?)

    If I’ve heard of these women, and even recall times when they were grouped together in similar lessons, then surely virtually all of the women in the room had had the same lessons. Why had they forgotten? Maybe because those stories are never incorporated into more solid Gospel Doctrine or other scriptural classes where women are shown as taking active roles in the early church? They’re always relegated to a “special” lesson, never incorporated into the presentation of the gospel.

    Seems to be the same with women in Church history. Frankly, all those things mentioned in Claudia’s first sentences are things I learned about in home study seminary in 1973 or 1974, and have heard about off and on since then. I’m surprised that any of them are new to other women (and men) in the Church. But I suppose it’s the same problem: When they are brought up, admittedly rarely, they are separate and distinct “special” presentations; they aren’t incorporated into the history of the church or into lessons teaching gospel principles. So people who don’t have my kind of memory are intrigued by them, but promptly forget them, and then are fascinated when they are presented again later as “new” material. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    I like Rachel’s approach.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 8, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

  16. Gag. Wish I could edit the typos.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 8, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

  17. Good point Ardis. I think most people just don’t do personal study. A lot of this is out there. A quick search on found quite a few discussions of all this.

    Comment by Clark — August 9, 2011 @ 9:46 am

  18. I also agree with Ardis and Rachel that, unfortunately, when we bring up stories about women it appears as a “separate” history. I think though, as it has been said, this will change as more research is done and more books written. The key will be when it is simply integrated into the general history of the church, as men and women and families all living the same history.

    So, why exactly is there so little to work with? Aren’t there thousands of women’s journals to use? Or are there not? Maybe someone can fill me in. Is it just that there isn’t anyone willing to do the work to archive them yet?

    And I wonder what effects the Joseph Smith papers project is having on the RS History, and in turn what effect the RS history will have on the sisters, and in turn what we will see history looking like 50 years from now.

    Comment by Karen — August 9, 2011 @ 10:25 am

  19. I am 69yrs (old to most of you). I have been in the church since 1956. I am not college educated as most of you, but educated by experience. I have heard over many years different stories of LDS women in the early church time. You forget that most of us were spending our time raising children, husbands, serving in church, schools and public. Since the coming of computers in our homes and the internet has made it easier for women to find early church history or whatever we are interested in. It is nice hearing about these things, but I am more interested in preparing myself for those things to keep myself and my family well prepared for the things coming at us today. Yes, looking at these women of the past can give us encouragement to tread on. I have never found the Priesthood holding us back from learning on our own. But, I am an old lady, simple minded and of not interest to many young people today.

    Comment by Diane Earlywine — August 9, 2011 @ 11:16 am

  20. I hope none of you mind if I mention the Women of Faith project that has been previously mentioned on this blog and elsewhere. The ongoing multi-volume project is being edited by Richard Turley and Brittany Chapman and will provide many accounts of well-known, less-known, and unknown women in Mormon history, including many first-hand diary accounts.

    And, to answer Karen’s question about diaries, many historical women’s diaries are listed in Davis Bitton’s Guide to Mormon Diaries and Autobiographies. A pdf version can be downloaded here.

    Comment by Researcher — August 9, 2011 @ 11:52 am

  21. Love your comments Ardis, and I also appreciate #19s comments. Seems like so much of what we study, too, (at least at church) is doctrine, not what men/women did, so I don’t feel to prone to criticize for not learning more about the women when we’re talking doctrine, anyway.

    However, in a historical class/lesson, definitely the lives of women should be more represented, especially as more information is available. I LOVE the stories of the early RS (as mentioned in the first quote); they make me happy and I see those women were just as dynamic and influential as we are today. Along with the dynamic and well-known women, I have a special appreciation for the many women who were primarily home cooking, cleaning, child-raising, sewing, & gardening. They were just doing their best to survive and we have to remember them, too, even though they’re not all that exciting for the most part.

    Comment by Emily — August 9, 2011 @ 11:30 pm

  22. Tona, I’m slow to welcome you to JI, but glad you’re here! One of your speculations as you close resonates with me: that the experiences of ordinary Latter-day Saints are still slow to be integrated to our narratives. Simply by virtue of their position and the conventional patriarchy elements in historical practice, women are certainly among the cast of diminutive historical figures (though there are plenty of others in the group, too). I hope and suspect that they’ll get more prominent as social history continues to trickle down.

    Comment by Ryan T. — August 10, 2011 @ 5:24 pm

  23. Even thought I’m nearly a week late, I can’t resist pointing out that when it comes to Mormon Literature, it was mostly written, supported and read by women until 1972. The Young Women’s Journal and The Relief Society Magazine were the major venues for Mormon Literature until they each closed.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — August 14, 2011 @ 6:05 pm


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