March Madness: Recovering our Past through Women’s History Month and Relief Society Birthday Parties

By March 13, 2012

We might be a little late kicking off our Women?s History Month events here at the Juvenile Instructor.  But our spirit is willing, and we still have sufficient time that we are pleased to offer your some significant contributions on Mormon women?s history from Jonathan Stapley, Amanda Hendrix-Komoto, guest blogger David Pulsipher, myself, and others.   National Women?s History Month should be even more important to Mormons, intersecting as it does with the yearly March anniversary of the founding of the female Relief Society of Nauvoo.  While the latter is given varying degrees of attention depending upon the particular ward or branch and its available resources, the former is sometimes dismissed as a tool of feminist political correctness.  Still, I think the correlation of the two provides unique opportunities for LDS scholars to broaden our understanding of women?s experiences in the past, and to look for new ways to honor their contributions, spirituality, and sociality.

In recent years, we have come so far in our telling of the Mormon past through women?s eyes.  But we have so far yet to go.  That?s partly what prompted my own interest in looking at Lucy Emily Woodruff Smith?s 1893-94 diary here and here.  I?m also looking forward to today?s post by Jonathan Stapley here, which gives us some more findings on his ongoing important research regarding Mormon women?s ritual healing, and don’t forget to go back and read Rachael’s thought-provoking post about gender in Mormon theology.

I am fascinated by Relief Society birthday celebrations.  They can range from lavish sit-down dinner parties to elaborate and well-organized humanitarian efforts to spiritual firesides meant to build testimony.  And sometimes RS birthday focus on simple homemaking skills or “craftsy” activities that are popular among LDS women in particular.  As much as I may favor the more substantive intellectual or service-type of RS celebration, I still accept that all are valid, because they represent the honest desires, interests and experiences of Mormon women.

I recently attended my own ward Relief Society party, in which I gave the opening talk on . . . what else? . . .  a history of Mormon women and birthday parties.  This is part of my current research in preparation for the upcoming MHA conference, in which I will look at elite Mormon birthday celebrations as forms of shared gendered space wherein male and female leaders came together to remember the Restoration, to pass their testimonies and memories of Joseph and Hyrum Smith to younger generations, to express spiritual gifts like prayer and speaking in tongues, but also just to party.  (I hope to share some of my findings in an upcoming post here on JI.)

But in keeping with the ?domestic? direction of many modern RS meetings, I also learned some useful tips on planning children?s birthdays, and I got to practice some cake-decorating skills .  But I felt so honored that my RS presidency invited my participation as a historian in our event.  Sometimes we miss opportunities to challenge ourselves intellectually, to teach about our historical legacies, and to discover the important in the trivial.  In spite of well-meaning intentions toward many RS festivities, I have sometimes heard these March events derided as a frivolous, superficial or girly ways to honor women of the Church.  Or, I?ve heard some men say, ?Well, we don?t have parties to honor the restoration of the Priesthood.?   But these complaints fall on my deaf ears (especially because we remember the Priesthood restoration all of the time.)  Since we still have so far to go in our telling of Mormon women?s past, I?ll take a once-a-year activity?no matter how fluffy?to remind members that we Mormon women do indeed have a past worth remembering.  Now, if we could just recognize that Mormon women have a history that extends beyond 1847, we?ll also be making some great progress.  I long for the day that average church members can rattle off the general RS presidents just as easily as they do the presidents of the church, that average Mormon women and men know about our unheralded and forgotten participation in suffrage, politics, and peace activism, as well as our history of sharing powerful spiritual gifts, sometimes even together with men, as Jonathan will discuss today.  So as we plunge into our March festivities here at the JI, let us remember that there is power in telling all women?s experiences, and that finding meaning in those experiences moves us just a little bit closer in recovering our feminine past.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. It is wonderful that you were able to speak at the RS birthday and I agree with your thoughts. And those really are excellent cupcakes.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 13, 2012 @ 11:40 am

  2. one of my favorites was when they had the cultural hall set up for the RS birthday party with 12 tables, each one decorated for a different month of the year, and you sat at your birthday month with the other ladies born then.

    another is this historic celebration:

    Comment by anita — March 13, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

  3. Thanks for the post, Anita. Like you, I’m fascinated by these varied attempts at the “RS party” or celebration. I think that we’re seeing more and more of this attempt to create a nostalgic version of the RS past, with reenactments of happy women dressed in pastels and calicoes sitting around a quilting frame, etc. While I admire these efforts to portray at least some kind of past, I fear the negative effects are– like the Nauvoo project– to reinforce a sanitized version of Mormon women’s history, without the complexity that women’s historians would like to uncover. Nonetheless, I herald the efforts.

    Comment by andrearm — March 13, 2012 @ 2:55 pm

  4. Thanks for heading this up, Andrea. I’m excited to read everyone’s contributions.

    Comment by Christopher — March 13, 2012 @ 8:33 pm

  5. Here’s my contribution to the RS-birthday celebration genre, from a couple of years ago:

    /obnoxious tooting of own horn

    Comment by Kristine — March 14, 2012 @ 10:24 am

  6. Thanks, Kristine. I’m all for tooting your own horn.

    I love this: “We perform the liturgy of Jello, prepare the sacramental postpartum casserole, supply the oil of tenderness and the grace of a listening ear.” You said more beautifully what I was trying to, that we can find sacred historicity even in the domestic and mundane.

    Thanks for the nod to Patty Sessions. I was already planning on using her wonderful drunken birthday soiree (smile) as part of my study on Mormon birthdays in general, and I think both Jonathan and myself would find useful the insertions of spiritual expressions and rituals into common celebratory gathering.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — March 14, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

  7. ?Well, we don?t have parties to honor the restoration of the Priesthood.?

    Not true! The traditional annual fathers and sons campout is scheduled near the time of the restoration of the priesthood with the idea of celebrating that event, albeit the connection is probably unbeknownst to most participants. Lost in all that pyromania and BBQ.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — March 15, 2012 @ 12:53 am

  8. I think we need a pyromania and BBQ-themed RS birthday party…

    Comment by Kristine — March 15, 2012 @ 2:16 pm

  9. As long as there’s a snipe hunt included.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — March 15, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

  10. “The past is passed and the future is now.”
    — Christopher Walken as Clem in “Joe Dirt”.

    Stories from the past are about empowering women for the future. We would be driving Jetson cars by now if the US Constitution had included eight simple words: “All holders of public office shall be grandmothers”.

    Comment by Bradley — March 18, 2012 @ 1:46 am

  11. […] Yellow Wallpaper in Zion:Wm: Yellow Wallpaper in Zion:Ben P: Yellow Wallpaper in Zion:Bradley: March Madness: RecoveringDavid G.: Yellow Wallpaper in Zion:Andrea R-M: March Madness: RecoveringKristine: March Madness: […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Southwestern States Mission: Fasting Frequency — March 18, 2012 @ 9:02 pm


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