In Search of New Models of the Feminine: A Modern Woman?s Nightmare and a Mormon Woman?s Dream

By June 10, 2014

Mechal Sobel has argued that the writing of autobiographies in the American Revolutionary period reflected and even promoted the development of the personal self, the ?I??as opposed to the ?we-self.? This change was most pronounced among white males, as women and all blacks remained ?enmeshed in a communality and?[continued to] serve the needs of increasingly individuated white males.?[1] Sobel found that over half of the more than two-hundred autobiographies that she examined in her research contained accounts of dreams and visions. ?The narratives, the dream reports, and the dream interpretations by the narrators provide vivid evidence of the change in self-perception in ideal and functioning selves. They also provide powerful evidence that American culture was a dream-infused culture and that work with dreams provided an important bridge into the modern period.?[2]

I am currently noticing a similar pattern in my study of women?s autobiographies and personal writings of the early-twentieth century. Mormon women, in particular, made it a point to record their dreams and visions. My working hypothesis is that they interpreted such dreams and visions as God-authorized revelations of the true or ideal female self, a self that was neither the pre-modern ?we-self? nor the modern ?I-self.? While American moderns in this period also interpreted dreams as manifestations of the ideal self, they rejected the claims of revealed religion?whether Biblically bound or prophetically ongoing?as an authoritative source for laws by which to govern the liberal, autonomous self. For them, America may have remained a dream-infused culture, but Freud, not Joseph in Egypt, served as interpreter.

Kadya Molodwsky was a poet, essayist, and editor of modernist literary-political journals in the United States beginning in the 1930s. Born and raised in Poland, she became alienated from her traditional Jewish life. She wrote ?Froyen lider? while still in Poland in 1919. The poem reveals that she felt haunted by her female ancestors but also craved their ongoing influence. The American poet and translator of Molodowsky?s work, Adrienne Rich, has noted that the poem expressed the challenge of escaping old ?models of womanhood? and the need to find new patterns for the self:[3]

The faces of women long dead, of our family,
come back in the night, come in dreams to me saying,
We have kept our blood pure through long generations,
we brought it to you like a sacred wine
from the kosher cellars of our hearts.

And one of them whispers:
I remained deserted, when my two rosy apples
still hung on the tree
And I gritted away the long nights of waking between
my white teeth.

I will go meet the grandmothers, saying:
Your sighs were the whips that lashed me
and drove my young life to the threshold
to escape from your kosher beds.
But wherever the street grows dark you pursue me?
wherever a shadow falls.

Your whimperings race like the autumn wind past me,
and your words are the silken cord
still binding my thoughts.
My life is a page ripped out of a holy book
and part of the first line is missing.[4]

The fear and hostility directed toward the ?grandmothers? in this poem was characteristic of the modern ethos of the 1920s. Whether Jewish or Christian, the mother was considered complicit in her own suppression of the ?I-self.? The cultural historian Ann Douglas has argued that the new women of the 1920s were largely working to overturn the nineteenth-century ascendance of the Victorian mother.

 ?in an era of open lawbreaking, symbolic matricide was the crime of choice, and it affected American culture in crucial ways. Thanks to the revolt against the matriarch, Christian beliefs and middle-class values would never again be a prerequisite for elite artistic success in America. Nor would plumpness ever again be a broadly sanctioned type of female beauty?.Once the matriarch and her notions of middle-class piety, racial superiority, and sexual repression were discredited, modern America, led by New York, was free to promote, not an egalitarian society, but something like an egalitarian popular and mass culture aggressively appropriating forms and ideas across race, class, and gender lines.[5]

Far removed from color and energy of New York and before the American moderns were dancing in full swing to the new music, a Mormon woman spent 15 years with her husband and children as a missionary among the Native Americans of Arizona?s Salt River Valley. In 1906 Sarah Jane York Tiffany returned to her primary home in Provo, Utah. She dictated her life story to her daughter in 1932, and it was published in 1940. She recorded that while she was residing in Arizona, she had a dream of her mother?s resurrection. Her mother had died when Tiffany was only five years old.

I had heard my father tell how my mother was dressed when she was laid away. Her coffin was of plain rough pine boards. Her temple suit of white bleach, the apron was also of white with the real fig leaves from St. George pinned on to the apron. This memory used to bother me so much that I worried over it. When I would go to a funeral and see the sisters laid away in their beautiful temple suits, I would go home and cry. I wondered what could be done and I prayed about it.[6]

Tiffany recollected that after returning home from a woman?s funeral one day, she collapsed on her bed, ruminating about her mother?s shabby burial.

I went to bed and didn?t seem to be asleep. Soon I found myself walking out of doors into an open country. As I was walking along, to the left of me and sitting a little distance away was a large white building. The door of it stood ajar. I wondered what was in that building so I went up to look in and see for myself. I walked into a large empty room. All I could see was a long box similar to a coffin setting on some easels or benches. The box was so old and worm eaten that it looked as if a blow of the breath would blow it away. Wondering what was in the box, I stepped up to see. There were bones of a human skeleton of a woman. I could see where the joints had been, the hands, fingers, and toes. The arm bones lay at the side of the bones of the body. I wondered what it all meant. Then for the first time I noticed a man all dressed in a temple suit standing in the air. His feet did not seem to touch the floor. He read my thoughts and said, “This is your mother. Will you go tell your father to throw away his tea, coffee, tobacco and wine and keep the commandments of God?”[7]

In the dream, she followed the angel?s instructions and returned with her father.

There was the worm eaten box just as I Had left it. I went up to the side of the box. My father stood at the foot of it. There was a shaking of bones and they began to rattle. Every bone went back into its proper place. The skin grew out and covered the bones. The flesh began to fill out under the skin. The body was so plump and beautiful. Then the hair grew out on her head, the eye brows and eye lashes and finger nails grew. She looked as if she were asleep. Her eyelids began to quiver and as I looked at her I thought someone ought to help her up.[8]

Tiffany recorded that, in her dream, she was going to take her mother by the hand to raise her up, but the angel instructed her, ?Step aside and let your father take his place. He has kept the commandments of God.?[9] Tiffany continued:

[My father] took my mother by the hand and as he raised her up, I noticed a beautiful temple suit coming over her head. It clothed her in an instant. It is beyond my power to describe those temple clothes. They were so white and glistened like the sun. As she looked at my father, the most beautiful smile came over her face. She embraced my father. I cannot explain the joy that we had of being together.[10]

A lot could be said about this fascinating account, but suffice it to say that I see it as evidence of Sarah Jane York Tiffany?s development of a Mormon female identity, an identity that was community-oriented and still entitled to a significant, but not boundless, autonomy. She was haunted by the deprivations and early death of her pioneering, self-sacrificing mother. She saw her mother?s condition as a problem that still needed to be solved, even though her mother was dead. The vision of her mother?s resurrection illustrated to her the imminent completion of her mother?s?and of woman?s?redemption, a redemption that remains unfinished until the rebirth of the physical body. And like Mary to Jesus? despairing disciples, Tiffany served as a messenger to her father. Through the open canon of her Mormonism, Tiffany envisioned a particular model of the feminine that echoed Biblical passages but that was not bound by past tradition or mediated by human authority.

[1] Mechal Sobel, Teach Me Dreams: The Search for Self in the Revolutionary Era (Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 5.

[2] Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[3] Norma Fain Pratt, ?Culture and Radical Politics: Yiddish Women Writers in America, 1890-1940,? in Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing, edited by Judith R. Baskin (Wayne State University Press, 1994), p. 117.

[4] Ibid., p. 118.

[5] Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), p. 8.

[6] Alma Tiffany Bethers, Biography of Sarah Jane York Tiffany (BYU Library, 1940), p. 37. L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.

[7] Ibid., p. 38.

[8] Ibid., p. 39.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. This is fantastic stuff, Liz. Many thanks!

    Comment by Ben P — June 11, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

  2. Thanks, Liz. I’m fascinated by the fact that Bethers crisis is facilitated by the shabby burial and that her mother is redeemed through the materiality of burial clothes. This was a great post.

    Comment by Kris — June 11, 2014 @ 10:46 pm

  3. Thanks, Ben and Kris!

    Comment by Liz M. — June 12, 2014 @ 3:01 pm


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