Responses: Susanna Morrill responds to Boyd Petersen’s JMH article

By January 27, 2014

Susanna Morrill is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of White Roses on the Floor of Heaven: Nature and Flower Imagery in Latter-day Saints Women?s Literature, 1880-1920 and several excellent articles. She has previously guest blogged for JI here and here

In the latest issue of the Journal of Mormon History, Boyd J. Petersen effectively and succinctly describes Mormon women?s dialogic literary conversations about Eve in the Woman?s Exponent: ?The speaking of many voices created a carnivalesque atmosphere where language was at once serious and subversive.? [1] This is a really great description of what was going on in Emmeline B. Wells? Exponent. This periodical gave Mormon women a distinct, authoritative bandwidth within the community to express their views, views that as Petersen notes sometimes ?subvert[ed] and sometimes co-opt[ed] the patriarchal gaze that watched over the publication.? [2] Petersen adds much to our understanding of how the present-day understanding of Eve developed as he meticulously chronicles the diversity of interpretations of Eve that appeared on the pages of the Exponent: she was alternately a hero, a goddess, ?the hapless and unintentional instigator of the Fall.? [3]

This is excellent and welcome work on the subject. Petersen expands our understanding of Mormon women?s lively and often contradictory theological discussions and how these contributed to authoritative discourses within the LDS community. He suggests that women had more opportunity than men to have published, theological conversations, that the Exponent was a place within the community where revelatory innovation was thriving and taking hold precisely because it was seen as being safely under the ?patriarchal gaze? (and yet was not in the direct sightline of that gaze). Also important to note here, many of the supporters and contributors of the Exponent had close and influential ties with the central leadership of the church. They were a kind of privileged matriarchy who were able create this dialogic space, as Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Kathleen Flake, and others have shown. Petersen helps us to see not so much beneath the surface of this self-consciously patriarchal community as to see another, equally important part of the surface. I get the picture of a community finding its identity through a complicated, gendered process of dialogic standardization from the central zones of authority in conversation with creative innovation from the matriarchal circle that surrounded and intersected that zone. That last sentence is a too simple diagramming of Petersen?s argument, but my point is that Petersen complicates our historical understanding of the power of the priesthood in shaping Mormon theology and conversations about that theology.

This article is a valuable resource for scholars of American women?s history. Petersen nicely qualifies my argument that the lingering negative conceptions of Eve espoused by women were due to the Protestant upbringings of first generation Mormon converts. He notes that the members of the priesthood were advocating negative interpretations from the pulpits and periodical pages of the church. I wonder if, on this point, we should also add to the explanatory mix the more general U.S. context in order to understand why some LDS women continued to advocate negative understandings of Eve. These women and their priesthood counterparts were not living in complete isolation from wider U.S. culture. Like Petersen, I?ve been working on the Exponent and trying to figure out how Mormon women of this era conceived of the Mother in Heaven and if and how these conceptions shaped present-day understandings of this divinity. In both cases?Eve and the Mother in Heaven?it strikes me that these dialogic exchanges in the Exponent offer opportunities to contextualize in detail the LDS material by means of more general American dialogue about female divinity and Eve. This contextualization will, no doubt, show Mormon women to be not so different from other American women of the era. Just as importantly, I?m convinced that the richness of the LDS sources will illuminate U.S. women?s religious history as whole. I have a hunch that LDS women?s religious lives and dialogic, popular theology have influenced wider and later streams of U.S. religious culture more than we think, streams of culture that on the surface seem completely disconnected, even antagonistic to LDS culture: feminist theology, Wicca, New Age traditions, among others.

Petersen?s article reveals a community of American women who were striving to understand and live within their religion and who, in the process, helped to mold that religion. These women were using the free agency they believed that Eve had bequeathed them and all humanity as part of God?s plan. Modern Eves, as they disagreed about the original Eve they were following her model and, thus, helping to shape that model.


[1] Boyd Jay Petersen, “‘Redeemed from the Curse Placed Upon Her’: Dialogic Discourse on Eve in the Woman?s Exponent,” Journal of Mormon History 40, no. 1 (winter 2014): 135-174.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Cultural History Gender Historiography Responses Women's History


  1. Thanks, Susanna. This is very helpful.

    Comment by David G. — January 27, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

  2. Thanks for this Susanna. The evolution of Eve/Mother in Heaven is richly connected to our theology of ritual and veneration, and I really like your ideas about the cross cultural influences. I haven’t read the article yet, but it’s on my list.

    Comment by WVS — January 27, 2014 @ 2:05 pm

  3. Great stuff, Susanna; this is fascinating stuff. If I end up exploring the life of Hannah Tapfield King in my next project, this might become even more relevant to me.

    Comment by Ben P — January 27, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

  4. Susanna, you mention that this was an elite group of women. Do you think that other, non-elite women had different relationships with Eve?

    Comment by Amanda — January 27, 2014 @ 3:19 pm

  5. Thanks, Susanna. I’ve tried (so far unsuccessfully) to wrap my head around the differences in how women engaged Mormon liturgy, as a function of eliteness (or whatever). I appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 27, 2014 @ 4:09 pm


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