Women in the Academy: Lisa Tait

By May 6, 2010

Here is Lisa’s self-introduction: I did my B.A. and M.A. in English at BYU, and I’ve just completed my PhD in English at the University of Houston. As part of my program, I also completed a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies, and most of my work has been directly or indirectly concerned with feminist theory and women’s history. I’ve been in and out of the academy and the work force for the past twenty years while I’ve been raising kids, so those issues are very real to me. I think of myself as a cultural studies specialist (that’s cultural studies, lower case, not so much the high-theory political-criticism version; though I do think my sensibilities are quite Marxist). I’ve been participating in the Mormon History Association for several years, and I’m a member of the Mormon Women’s History Initiative team. I’ve been spending a lot of time giving papers at conferences for the past year. The one I did for the Society for the Study of American Women Writers was named a finalist in the best graduate student paper contest. It’s called “‘Suggestions’ to the Girls: Fiction and Monogamy in 1890s Mormondom.” My husband Mike is an HR Director for American Express. We moved from Houston to American Fork, Utah, three years ago–which greatly facilitated my dissertation research.

How did you become interested in your area (s) of expertise/specialization?

There are many possible answers to this question, so I will just tell a couple of stories.

Like most English majors, I grew up reading voraciously. I read a lot of the things I was “supposed” to read, on my own and in school. But I also read a lot of other stuff–a stash of Harlequin romances my grandmother gave me, magazine fiction (back when there was such a thing), Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie. Madeleine L’Engle was my favorite. Meanwhile, when I went to Girls’ Camp for the first time, one of the leaders was a young woman in my ward, five years older than I was, who had just graduated from high school. She was the Sterling Scholar in English for our high school (it’s a Utah thing), she had a full-ride scholarship to BYU, and she was planning to major in English and minor in Latin with a goal of teaching high school. I decided that those sounded like good goals for myself, so I set my sights on them. I achieved the Sterling Scholar, BYU scholarship, and English major. When I got to college, I studied Latin but did not do a full minor in it, and I decided fairly early on that I wanted to teach college instead of high school.

All of which is to say that I became interested in my original area of expertise (literature) through a combination of personal inclination and mentoring of another woman. I did my undergraduate work in the late 1980s when the BYU English Department was still a bastion of male professors, and formalist New Criticism was the scholarly orthodoxy in the field. To vastly oversimplify, New Criticism sought to divorce literature from its contexts and read it as a self-contained text that could be analyzed for various literary features and techniques. The underlying narrative of this critical approach was that the “great” artists, especially in American literature, had been unappreciated in their own day by the unsophisticated bourgeoisie who read the junk produced by the “damned mob of scribbling women” instead of valuing “true art.”

I graduated with my B.A. in 1991. By then, I had four little kids and I stayed home with them for the next five years. I read a lot of “Literature” (capital L), trying to fill in the gaps I thought I had left over from my undergrad work, and I read a lot of history, which was always a real interest for me. I subscribed to Dialogue and nurtured a passion for intellectual Mormon pursuits, as well. When I went back for my M.A. five years later, the world had shifted–both the world of literary studies (which had turned toward theory and cultural studies) and my personal world. In a word, I discovered the Poldarks. It’s a series of novels by Winston Graham (there are twelve books in all, I think) that take place in late 18th-century Cornwall, and holy cow. Those books took over my life. I read all of them in just under two months. I read all day, all night, while driving, while cooking, while eating, I was supposed to be sleeping.

Now, I’m not going to say I would have the same reading experience today if I dared let myself pick up those books again, but the point is that it was a powerful thing. And it got me to wondering and questioning that old narrative about what constitutes “Literature.” Anyone who knows anything about history knows that reading was a major activity, crucial to the formation of middle-class culture, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries as literacy spread and books became readily accessible consumer products. So, I wondered, what kinds of things were people reading that gave them the same kind of experience I had with the Poldark novels? The fact that the work of the supposedly “great” writers’ sold so poorly suggests that it wasn’t them. So who was it? And how did people in the past think about reading? About literature?

Those were the questions that animated me as I started into my master’s program, and then, through a series of events that I don’t have space to narrate here, I discovered Mormon Home Literature and the Young Woman’s Journal–which fits all the descriptions of the kind of reading material that traditional criticism has denigrated–and my love of history, reading, and cultural studies came together.


What are you currently studying, or what are some of your current projects?


I’ve just finished my dissertation, which is called “The Young Woman’s Journal and Its Stories: Gender and Generations in 1890s Mormondom.” It’s about how that magazine gives us a window into the internal dynamics of cultural change during a pivotal decade in Mormon history. I connect Mormon Home Literature and the paradigms it drew on to larger patterns and traditions in American literature and culture. And of course there’s a gendered, generational aspect to it all, since the YWJ (and, I would argue, much of Home Literature) is characterized by women of a certain generation speaking to and about their daughters at a time when the elders of the community felt that the kids were going to hell in a handbasket. I’m working on revising my dissertation as a book manuscript, like everyone else who has just finished a PhD.

I’m working on some articles to submit to journals. One that I think has a lot of potential will be about what I call the Mormon Seduction Tale. Lots and lots of Home Literature was about what would happen to young women who took up with gentiles, and it often draws on the time-honored conventions of the seduction tale. After the Manifesto, there was a great deal of worry (hysteria, actually) about the implications for the marriage prospects of young women. There would not be enough righteous men to go around, so they would be tempted to run off with non-Mormons or settle for bad Mormons. The purpose of Home Literature was, in large measure, to scare them out of it.

Interestingly, though, I found a real-life case from Salt Lake City in 1890 where a young Mormon woman had been seduced and possibly raped by a non-Mormon man. She shot him dead, turned herself in to the police, and was acquitted at her trial a couple of months later. So that story adds an interesting layer to the supposedly fictional seduction tales in the YWJ.


I am working on a biography of Susa Young Gates. I should say working toward the biography because there is so much material to cover, and it is going to take a while to get through it all. But it’s something I’m serious about, and I’m beginning to formulate articles and sections and take the material piecemeal.

I’m also working towards a book on Mormon women writers, sort of a critical edition with a substantial general introduction and biographical, contextual, and critical introductions to each author. I’ve identified about half a dozen women I think ought to be included in the book, and I’m going to invite a few other women scholars to contribute chapters on the women I am less familiar with.

What has your experience been like as a woman in the academy?

I’m not sure how to answer this question because I suspect that my experience in the academy has been like that of many others–women and men. I suppose that reflects the fact that I have come along in time to benefit from the groundbreaking work that so many other women did to achieve a legitimate place for women in the university and throughout society. I have heard stories from others about disparaging remarks by male professors about their education not mattering because they-re “just going to stay at home with kids” anyway. But I can honestly say that I have never experienced anything like that firsthand.

At the same time, I have struggled as a woman in the academy just like every other woman in the work force to reconcile my desires and goals with the ideology that surrounds me about being self-sacrificing and putting my family first, and I have often labored under heavy burdens because I was trying to fulfill all the obligations and deadlines of my work while still doing the lion’s share of housework, childcare, and so on. A lot of the time this was because my husband’s job was demanding and he had to travel a lot. So it’s not just an interpersonal thing–which we’re all led to believe—it’s also a structural thing about how our society does not support the real needs of families. The world is still very much organized to assume that there is a woman at home taking care of all the details–and if you are that woman, heaven help you if you want to try to do anything for yourself.

I feel that these issues are especially acute and difficult for young LDS women and their husbands. I see too many young women who are made to believe early on that they have to choose between having a career and being a mother–and there’s no question, of course, which they ought to choose. So they opt out of their own potential before they have a chance to tap into it. On the flip side, I see a lot of young men who have grown up thoroughly accepting that women are equal human beings who need to have an outlet of their own, and feeling that they want to be involved and supportive fathers. But reality, again, is not structured to support those desires, and it becomes a very difficult negotiation–all the more because the unconsciously (and, in Mormon culture, consciously) imbibed expectations of how a family should be structured are so powerful and easy to fall back on.

In your field who are some women you admire? Why?

Currently I am still completely enamored with my dissertation director, Dr. Roberta Weldon at the University of Houston. She is a top-notch scholar and an equally dedicated teacher. The two don’t always go together. In a more general sense, there are many women on my bibliography list below who have been very influential in shaping my thinking about literary studies and about myself as a scholar. Feminist scholarship, as you know, is both personal and political.

I have been blessed to become acquainted with many of the leading women of Mormon studies: Carol Cornwall Madsen and Jill Mulvay Derr are probably the two best known. Carol has been a real friend and mentor to me ever since she served on my thesis committee. I also appreciate and admire women like Cherry Silver and Connie Lamb who work quietly to support and facilitate the work of others. Cherry is a wonder at making connections between people and always has an eye out for the new person who needs to be included. Connie does a lot of nuts and bolts work in the BYU Library to make resources available to others and is tireless in serving behind the scenes. I admire all of these women, most of all, because they combine the pursuit of truly excellent scholarship with a firm commitment to the gospel.

Finally, though, I have to say that I admire Susa Young Gates and her generation of women. They did remarkable things under very difficult circumstances, and they lived the most interesting lives!

For someone who is interested in studying what you do, what are some books you would recommend on the subject?


Here’s a short list of works about American women writers, periodicals, cultural studies, and literary theory:

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. 259-422. Print.

Baym, Nina. Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870. 2nd ed. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Print. [Almost everything by Nina Baym is great.]

Brodhead, Richard H. Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1993. Print.

Bushman, Richard L. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Vintage, 1992. Print.

Damon-Moore, Helen. Magazines for the Millions: Gender and Commerce in the Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post, 1880-1910. Albany: State U New York, 1994. Print.

Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. New York: Oxford, 1986. Print.

Dobson, Joanne. “Reclaiming Sentimental Literature.” American Literature 69.2 (Jun 1997): 263-88.

Harris, Sharon M., ed. Blue Pencils & Hidden Hands: Women Editing Periodicals, 1830-1910. Boston: Northeastern UP, 2004. Print.

Harris, Susan K. Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Novels: Interpretive Strategies. New York: Cambridge UP, 1990. Print.

Hunter, Jane. How Young Ladies Became Girls: The Victorian Origins of American Girlhood. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002. Print.

Kelley, Mary. Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America. With new preface. Chapel Hill & London: U North Carolina P, 2002. Print.

Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge and London: Harvard UP, 1988. Print.

Okker, Patricia. Our Sister Editors: Sarah J. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth-Century American Women Editors. Athens and London: U Georgia P, 1995. Print.

Rosenzweig, Linda W. The Anchor of My Life: Middle-Class American Mothers and Daughters, 1880-1920. New York: New York UP, 1993. Print.

Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900. Kent, Ohio and London: Kent State UP, 1995. Print.

Theriot, Nancy M. Mothers and Daughters in Nineteenth-Century America: The Biosocial Construction of Femininity. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1996. Print.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860. New York: Oxford, 1985. Print.


Article filed under Miscellaneous Women in the Academy


  1. Another fantastic installment in this series. Thanks Lisa (and Liz). Be sure and keep us updated on your several projects. They all sound great.

    Comment by Christopher — May 6, 2010 @ 8:22 am

  2. Thanks, Lisa. I agree your projects sound very interesting. Are you planning (or have you) published anything from your dissertation in article form?

    Comment by David G. — May 6, 2010 @ 8:37 am

  3. So glad to see a shout-out to Connie; she may be the most important and least known contributor to Mormon Women’s Studies.

    I look forward to reading your dissertation when it turns into a book (or before, if I get impatient!)

    Comment by Kristine — May 6, 2010 @ 8:52 am

  4. And, what David said–if you haven’t but are considering it, I know this one journal editor who’s a lit. crit. type herself and very interested in Mormon women’s stuff.

    Just sayin. 😉

    Comment by Kristine — May 6, 2010 @ 8:54 am

  5. I too am looking forward to reading your dissertation, Lisa. I have been since I first heard about it on the AML-List.

    And thanks for providing a reading list. There are a few titles there that I’m eager to dig in to. I’m also pleased to see another Mormon literary critic out there who is interested in Bakhtin. The Dialogic Imagination (which I realize is just a starting point — there are Bakhtinians who have their issues with Holquist, of course) is one of the few works of literary theory that I have re-read post-MA.

    And if I can be so presumptuous, here’s another work that I think provides some perspective on home literature, especially the courtship narratives, and one that is easily readable (e.g. not super theory-intensive):

    The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s by Ellen Gruber Garvey.

    Comment by Wm Morris — May 6, 2010 @ 9:12 am

  6. Lisa, you are my hero. Thanks very much for this.

    Reading Terry Eagleton at BYU came as a huge revelation for me when I saw that what I had always thought of as the only way to analyze literature, because that’s what what all my classes up to that point had taught, was in fact New Criticism, which was very much a product of a particular moment in history and which came with several unstated assumptions.

    I’m definitely stealing your argument for the study of popular culture at the next available opportunity. Life would be simpler if I would just study Great Literature, but I keep wondering what most people actually got excited about.

    Finally, it must be said: the new MLA rule about adding “web” or “print” to bibliographic citations is an abomination.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — May 6, 2010 @ 9:27 am

  7. It’s not an abomination, Jonathan, it just needs to be expanded.

    Some Crazy Conservative Blog That Only Gets 10 Readers

    The Editor Was Drunk When He Accepted It For Publication

    Printed on Cheap Paper With An Annoying Font

    Online Journal Whose Editorial Board Was Actually The Creation of One Grad Student At McGill

    This Was The Point Where The Series Editor Lost Interest

    Oops! This Is Only Available at Archive.org

    So Totally Remaindered

    etc. etc.

    Comment by Wm Morris — May 6, 2010 @ 10:21 am

  8. But what I keep getting on student papers is: “Journal Article I Found Referenced In MLA Bibliography But Never Went To The Library To Read. Web.”

    Comment by Jonathan Green — May 6, 2010 @ 10:31 am

  9. I’m loving this series, Elizabeth. I’m finding it so encouraging to read about other women negotiating family and university life. Thanks for all your work putting these interviews together and making them available.

    Comment by ZD Eve — May 6, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

  10. Re: # 6,7,8. So that’s why so many of the freshmen in my class added “print” to every single one of their footnotes when they turned in their papers last week. Ugh, that is annoying.

    Re: the series: Just out of curiosity, Liz, how many more installments will there be?

    Comment by Christopher — May 6, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

  11. Thanks, ZD Eve. I’ve been really inspired reading about the careers and lives of these fascinating women.

    Chris, right now I don’t have anyone else lined up. But I am going to keep trying to recruit people. The series will keep going until I can find no more people to participate or until I lose steam. No more interviews for a few weeks; I’m traveling and then will be in school again. 🙂 If you have any recommendations, though, I would love to hear them.

    Comment by Elizabeth — May 6, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

  12. Elizabeth I really love reading all these. Thanks so much.

    Lisa you are inspiring.

    Comment by mmiles — May 7, 2010 @ 10:27 am

  13. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I didn’t realize this had been posted, or I would have replied sooner.

    I see that I pasted the sources right out of my Works Cited list–oops. As many of you picked up on, that’s why it says “print.” I agree that MLA is a pain. But now, so is turning MLA into Chicago since that’s what the journals want.

    By way of response, I have not published anything yet, but I am working on it. My first article, (editors willing) will be a kind of overview of the YWJ for a journal on American periodicals, and then I’ll work on that one about the seduction tale. And I do hope to get the dissertation published as a book sooner rather than later.

    I will definitely follow up with that one journal editor, though…

    William, I would not consider myself an expert on Bahktin, but I have found some of his ideas very useful, particularly the concept of “authoritative discourse” versus “internally persuasive discourse.” One of the central problems of home literature (as with all didactic literature) is that it attempts to blend authoritative discourse with the internally persuasive discourse of fiction–as Bahktin might say, it attempts to monologize the heteroglossia that is a fundamental characteristic of fiction. So the narratives end up being divided against themselves (in Cathy Davidson’s words). Many critics would stop there and say, so that’s why home literature doesn’t work. I think, however, that the internal dissonances of home literature are a profound encapsulation of the stress and uncertainty of the cultural moment in which they were written. And that’s where it gets really interesting.

    And Jonathan, I’m no hero, but thanks for mentioning Terry Eagleton. The Introduction to his book on literary theory is one of the single most influential things I have ever read. He historicizes the definitions and uses of literacy and literature in ways that I find extremely persuasive. I had already begun developing my subversive sensibilities about literary criticism when I first read Eagleton, but he really articulated it for me in a way that permanently warped my mind. I’m not a capital-M Marxist, but I am much more of a materialist than an idealist.

    Thanks to Elizabeth for asking me to participate in this series. After three years alone in my basement office, toiling away in obscurity, I’m glad to be part of the world again. And I’m glad to know there are at least two or three other people in the world who might be interested in what I’ve been working on. Now, if one of those two or three is an editor at a major academic press…

    Comment by Lisa Tait — May 9, 2010 @ 1:14 am

  14. Wow, I felt like in many ways, I was reading the story of my life. Or something very similar to it. I definitely would like to continue in auto/biographical studies and Mormon women, but I’d like to go into the comparisons between modern-day auto/biographical acts (like blogs) and previous traditions. I think I’ll have to get in touch with a lot of the people named here and read through the whole bibliography. Thanks so much!

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — May 10, 2010 @ 1:57 am

  15. Okay, now I’m really hooked, Lisa. I hope your publishing paths are as smooth as possible — and not only for my own selfish reasons.

    A different type of discourse, but the dissonances in Orson F. Whitney’s poetic works interest me as well because it’s clear that he loves Romantic poetry so much and yet is trying to put its tropes and forms in to the service of Mormon didactism and so you end up with those moments that are both awesome and awkward and sometimes kinda humorous.

    Comment by Wm Morris — May 10, 2010 @ 9:59 am


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