Review: Journal of Mormon History 37:2 (Spring 2011), part 1

By June 3, 2011

It’s that time again. The latest issue of the Journal of Mormon History is rolling out to a mailbox near you (if you’re lucky enough to be a subscriber–if not–what are you waiting for?).

Ron Romig’s article provides a fascinating biographical look at Alexander Hale Smith, a son of Joseph and Emma. From the conclusion: “Alexander seemed to instinctively understand his own and his family’s special identity. But Alex never allowed his heritage to serve as a justification for privilege. Rather, by adopting and living out the core teachings of the Restoration movement as his own, Alexander conscientiously walked a path of exceptional sacrifice and service to others. Acting his part in a purposeful story, Alexander H. Smith devoted his life to the realization of a greater good.”

Next comes historian Catherine A. Brekus’ Tanner Lecture. I’ll be spending considerable space on her article compared to others and that reflects my interest in the subject and my feeling about its importance. I heartily encourage all to read it and am interested to hear specific reactions to it.

She argues that Mormon women have been passed over in modern studies of women and religion (and that the excellent studies which do exist have largely failed to impact the wider field) and this is due to the problems scholars have experienced in discussing Mormon women as historical agents and in how historical agency is defined.  When Mormon women have been noticed, historians “outside of the LDS community” have taken stereotypes about women as degraded and exploited by polygamy at face value while others, in the interest of defending Mormon women from such characterizations, have overstated Mormon women’s agency and independence. “The result is that we are left with a fractured picture of Mormon women as either deluded, downtrodden slaves or fiercely independent matriarchs” (61).

Here I’ll note that Chris recently posted on matters of agency. Brekus notes that in historical contexts,

…’agency’ today has become virtually synonymous with emancipation, liberation, and resistance. When historians write about agency, they often imagine an individual in conflict with his or her society who self-consciously seeks greater freedom…an agent is someone who resists the constraints of the social structure, who challenges social norms to create something new. Given these implicit definitions of agency as freedom, empowerment, and intentionality, it is not surprising that the few women who appear in American religious history textbooks tend to be pioneering female leaders who self-consciously challenged the restrictions on their authority: white, mainstream Protestant women like Catharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Frances Willard. Because historians have implicitly defined agency against structure, they have found it hard to imagine women who accepted religious structures as agents. This is why there are so few Mormon women in American religious history textbooks–or for that matter, Catholic women, Orthodox Jewish women, or Fundamentalist women…scholars in search of a “useable past” have rarely been interested in studying women who seem to have accepted female subordination (71-72).

Brekus then notes that despite much excellent work, “Instead of broadening the definition of female agency, they [historians of Mormon women] have tried to fit Mormon women’s lives into an emancipatory paradigm by demonstrating their subjects’ engagement in feminist politics…While Mormon women’s historians have made a compelling case for why LDS women should be included in discussions of the suffrage movement, they have not explained why historians should care about the large numbers of ordinary women who never openly challenged male authority in the family, state, or church.”

Brekus notes more recent studies of Mormon polygamy that present a very positive view, that sister wives developed intense personal bonds, that more women had more time to pursue degrees and have access to child care and leisure time in a polygamous system, and generally that polygamy was liberating rather than oppressive. Central to these approaches is a vigorous challenge to the notion that Mormon women were forced or coerced into polygamy. However, Brekus notes, these approaches do not take into account the complexity of historical agency.  “By pointing out that polygamy encouraged women to become more independent, historians have helped to dismantle nineteenth-century caricatures of Mormon women as ‘slaves’ or concubines. on the other hand, this positive interpretation of polygamy has also had the effect of minimizing or even ignoring the structural constraints on women’s agency…Mormon women were free to make choices, but they exercised that freedom within a religious environment that strongly encouraged them to cultivate the supposedly ‘feminine’ values of piety, self-denial, and obedience” (74-75).

Indeed, as Brekus notes, polygamy taught “traditionally feminine virtues like chastity, submission, and especially self-sacrifice” (76-77).

“Given the controversies surrounding polygamy, it is not surprising that Mormon historians have struggled to find the right tone to use when writing about plural wives. Yet their difficulties suggest that they need to think more deeply about their understanding of women’s agency. In terms of its treatment of women, the field of Mormon history stands at a crossroads. While previous generations of historians virtually ignored women, recent scholars have been so determined to portray women as historical agents that they have sometimes exaggerated their freedom to make choices about their lives. Although there is no simple solution to this conceptual problem, one way forward it to try to craft a new model of agency–a model that recognizes both the capacity of ordinary women to create change and the structural constraints on their agency” (77-78).

Brekus offers seven points that she hopes would characterize such an approach:

1) “a new definition of agency should recognize that agency includes the reproduction of social structures as well as the transformation of them.”

2) “we should reconsider the implicit association of agency with freedom and emancipation.”

3) “in addition to broadening our definition of agency to include the reproduction of social structures, we should also rethink the close association between agency and intentionality.” Here she notes Susanna Morrill’s work.

4) “a new definition of agency should also include the insight that agency should always be seen as relational and social rather than simply individual.”

5) “agency must be understood as existing on a continuum. Historians tend to write as if their subjects either have agency or they do not.”

6) “we should also recognize that agency is always shaped by cultural norms and structural constraints.”

7) “Finally, we should remember that agency takes place within structures as well as against them.”

Though not professing to have all the answers, Brekus’ hope is that these approaches will lead scholars to a deeper understanding not only of Mormon women, but of women in religion generally.

I think this is a really important piece that has a lot to chew on. The ideas she presents about agency have wider implications for other areas apart from women’s history, including histories of race and histories involving other marginalized groups, etc. I wonder if some of these issues aren’t a little more widespread than she presents, for example, the idea that agency operates within societal constraints, etc. All in all, I like this piece because it describes and contextualizes histories of Mormon women, but also goes beyond that and shows how studies of Mormon women can have an impact on the larger fields of women’s history and religious history.


Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews


  1. I heart the Brekus article. That is all.

    Comment by Liz — June 3, 2011 @ 9:26 pm

  2. Perhaps instead of agency, we should think in terms of options. That, I think, better communicates what we’re trying to get at. After all, everyone has agency, in the sense that everyone makes choices. And yes, everyone chooses from among a finite number of feasible options. But the real question is, how limited and how favorable are one’s options? Are those options socially constrained in a way that prevents women from living fulfilling lives and realizing one’s potential?

    When we frame the issue this way, female self-assertion could be reframed as a “creation or discovery of new options” rather than as an “exercise of agency”. This language states a bit more precisely what we’re getting at.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — June 3, 2011 @ 10:26 pm

  3. Chris, interesting thoughts. I guess I don’t know that using “options” instead of agency is any less fraught (or all that different in the end) and then would lack the historiographical benefits of discussions of “agency.”

    Certainly it’s always fair game to rethink how we talk about these things and the words we use, but I guess I’m interested here more in her thoughts on expanding and adjusting how we think of agency as such. And in this vein, I like where she’s going.

    Comment by Jared T — June 4, 2011 @ 12:05 am

  4. Well, I wouldn’t want to do away with the concept of agency entirely. But I do think the concept of options could help feminist historians clarify what exactly it is about female agency that they’re interested in.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — June 4, 2011 @ 12:55 am

  5. Thanks for publicizing this clearly important article. A few thoughts.

    First, Amy Hoyt’s recent article on Mormon women’s agency in Element is an important contribution to this topic.

    Second, the Mormon Women Project and Claudia Bushman’s Women’s Oral Histories are, in my opinion, substantial responses to Brekus’ call “to craft a new model of agency?a model that recognizes both the capacity of ordinary women to create change and the structural constraints on their agency.” More broadly, these projects might be justly construed as the future of Mormon studies because of the way they connect academics with the living communities and persons they study.

    Finally, it’s ironic that, considering historians’ propensity to study emancipatory and radical figures in women’s history, ignoring the ordinary Mormon woman, that it was a Mormon woman who coined the famous phrase, “Well-behaved women seldom make history” (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich).

    Comment by Jacob B. — June 4, 2011 @ 12:58 am

  6. I just wanted to sustain your last paragraph, and to reiterate that this article is groundbreaking in a number of ways, and I think it moves Mormon womens history, that is to say: Mormon history, forward by giving us some conceptual language and a framework for talking about our “most invisible” historical agents. It is easier in the beginning of exploring the history of a group (like Mormon women) to write about the ones who left us a record, and who stood out in some way, who resisted, struggled, achieved liberation, exercised power & authority. But how do we get at the history of those who acquiesced, who built and reinforced Mormon social and cultural structures, because–as Brekus stresses and I completely agree–their history is no less worth telling.

    Christopher and Jared – I think Brekus is picking up on the word “agency” here because it is so central to Mormon theology. She doesn’t explicitly make the connection between historical agency and theological agency, but I think it’s there for her LDS readers to notice. She’s giving one of our core concepts additional utility, which is another reason this article is so important.

    Jacob B, you’re right, Laurel did write that phrase, but it’s been so misunderstood that her original meaning is usually lost. She wrote it early on, in her study of early New England colonial goodwives. Even that word “goodwife” suggests that women were conceived of in that society 1) in terms of their economic/legal relation to man, and 2) in terms that constrained their behavior to a narrow set of ideas about goodness/badness. The ones who crossed boundaries of gender expectation were the ones who appeared in men’s official records (church, town, colony) and so they were the ones who could be found by historians more easily. Laurel’s point was that the history of the well-behaved ones still deserves telling but of course requires greater methodological sophistication. I think this is Brekus’s thrust too and one the major contributions of her article: tell the stories we haven’t yet told, because we didn’t know what to do with submissive women. If submission is seen as a choice (think Marie Griffith’s book on evangelical submission as a form of power and status and legitimation), then we have some grounds for getting at the stories of women who weren’t necessarily the groundbreakers but the kingdombuilders nonetheless. And those are paths we haven’t gone down enough yet.

    Comment by tona — June 4, 2011 @ 6:45 am

  7. Thanks for the review, Jared. Brekus’s article is top-notch, and seems to be part of a larger movement among religious historians to more critically historicize “agency”—an important move to be sure.

    Comment by Christopher — June 4, 2011 @ 8:50 am

  8. I should also add that I enjoyed Romig’s article on Alexander Hale Smith—an individual I knew little about prior to reading Romig’s essay.

    Comment by Christopher — June 4, 2011 @ 8:51 am

  9. Great thoughts all, thank you!

    Comment by Jared T — June 4, 2011 @ 9:44 pm


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