The Juvenile Instructor is conducting a roundtable this month on Colleen McDannell’s Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy, recently published by Oxford University Press. Follow along here at the blog as contributors explore different themes within McDannell’s book.
Colleen McDannell says in the preface of Sister Saints that she had a desire to understand the Latter-day Saint women who surrounded her as she taught and lived in Salt Lake City beginning in the 1990s. This book is the result of her research into the lives of LDS women. She investigated what has sustained and motivated these women, and how that has changed over time. Though her insights on the nineteenth century are important, McDannell’s main focus for this book is the modern Latter-day Saint woman. By rooting her analysis in a variety of sources, McDannell breaks free from the images of Mormon women in the nineteenth century. Here Mormon women move beyond the image of the “helpless Victorian ladies or strange sexual beings.” (xi) She shows the great diversity of modern LDS women by carefully tracing their experiences through the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. By using diaries, minute books, letters, lessons, speeches, oral histories, publications, blog posts, and social media, McDannell shows how women have built community and created Mormon culture. Here I will just focus on a few examples within the text.
McDannell uses diaries and minute books from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to show the transition in churchgoing practices. In the nineteenth century, Latter-day Saints were busy building the Kingdom of God, and not concerned with consistent churchgoing. Church leaders had to change these attitudes so they could survive as a religious institution in an industrial world. This meant modernizing religious practices. Modernization led to changes in how the community was organized, causing women to find new means to hold on to their authority and identity. McDannell argues that weekly Relief Society meetings “encapsulated the spirit of modern Mormonism,” showing how religion could be “systematized, educational, and practical.” (45) As a result of their spirituality becoming more rational in character, women’s writings also changed, containing less instances of speaking in tongues, or the supernatural. By looking over a large number of diaries, McDannell was able to trace these changes in women’s spiritual practices. And such diary entries bring her early chapters to life.
Letters and diaries are also used to explore the post-World War II Mormon culture, a period when a particular image of the faithful Mormon woman developed. McDannell argues that these women who were caring for large families and participating in extensive ward activities had little time for much else. LDS women did express their struggles in letters and diaries. Her analysis of the letters written to “Mary Marker,” the advice columnist for the Deseret News is especially strong, and these sources are a highlight of the book (beginning in chapter 5, “A Style of Our Own”). McDannell shows how these letters give a “glimpse of Mormon home life outside of the rosy world of fiction and memoir.” (77) They certainly do contain “painful descriptions of everyday life, unmitigated by a family or church.” Women confess how much they dislike housework and the rough realities of motherhood, continuing to wonder what they have done wrong, or how they can have more faith. LDS women, particularly mothers, sought ways to improve themselves, but did not try to radically change the structure of the church or its culture more broadly.
McDannell shows how the idea of what it meant to be a Mormon changed as the twentieth century progressed. This postwar image of the faithful woman continued to be challenged by women who moved away from a uniform way to be Mormon, especially as the faith increasingly became a church of converts. McDannell traveled to South Africa and Italy to conduct research and analyze Mormonism as a global faith. The Mormon feminine stereotype had less power in many of women’s lives, since they were not raised with the Mormon domestic ideal or that cultural baggage (chapter 8, “A Church of Converts). They instead look at their own lives, and how they have changed after their conversion. More analysis of the diversity of the church on an international scale would have been nice to have, but with how much McDannell covers in this book, case studies such as this helped her to still make a strong argument. McDannell’s observations will hopefully be expanded on in further works as other scholars explore the complexity of the global faith.
And finally, McDannell’s analysis of internet sources is insightful. She looks at how the internet has been used by a wide spectrum of women, but also used by the church itself. And yet again McDannell shows how women used these resources in a “distinctly different way.” (175) She argues that women have used the internet and social media to “engage with ideas, articulate beliefs, organize resistance, raise money, celebrate families, and display creativity—all efforts that had been receding from the institutional church.”
Sister Saints shows how important it is to think expansively about sources, especially when exploring women’s experiences. Many of the source types McDannell uses in this book have been used by other scholars. But McDannell goes farther than these other works by including them all in this one text, linking them all together, and by pushing her analysis further. She expertly places her argument in the larger historical context, connecting the experiences of LDS women to the social history of the twentieth century. From diaries and minute books to online blogs and social media, McDannell argues that women used particular spaces to build their community, often in ways different than male church leadership expected. McDannell shows that anyone who is serious about understanding the history of Mormonism needs to centralize women’s experiences and voices. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the LDS Church in the twentieth century.