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From our exchanges: “Mormon Women’s Biographies of Their Female Forebears”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 02, 2008

Susan H. Swetnam. “Turning to the Mothers: Mormon Women’s Biographies of Their Female Forebears and the Mormon Church’s Expectations for Women,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 10:1 (1988), 1-6.

Susan H. Swetnam is not a Mormon and as a result makes faulty assumptions concerning Mormonism – she assumes, for instance, that Especially for Mormons is a record of Mormon teachings. (You could make a case, I think, that Especially for Mormons represents a certain lowest common denominator form of Mormon folklore, but not that it represents any “LDS prescriptions for women” as Swetnam asserts.) Swetnam responds to “the dissident voices of Mormon women,” predisposing her to expect reflections of “a clearly subservient role,” “serious disorders born of guilt,” and “something odd and subversive” in that most Mormon of literary forms, “the laudatory ancestor biography.”

Unlike too many other writers with a passionate ideological point, however, Swetnam is very free with specific examples, demonstrating that what she claims to find is actually, indisputably there.

In 1983, Swetnam assembled a collection of 253 amateur ancestral biographies (158 of men, 95 of women, about two-thirds written by Mormons) in southeast Idaho by advertising in the media, and by soliciting churches, old folks’ homes, and historical societies. She has placed copies of her archives with both the Idaho State Historical Society and Idaho State University – a generosity not often exercised until a scholar has completed active life and is disposing of his papers.

She writes, “I was struck at first with the formulaic surface of the LDS ancestor biographies … virtually all LDS writers claimed as a thesis that grandma or grandpa was an ideal Mormon; all included predictable stories detailing hard work, conventional virtue, and devotion to church and family.” Swetnam finds in this an illustration of the Mormon purpose for such hagiographic writings: “to bind families together and guide descendants in this life.”

But she also noticed a clear difference between the biographies of grandmothers written by Mormons, and those written by non-Mormons. Non-Mormons tended to “gleefully record” the serious vices of their grandmothers, whereas Mormons censored such doings out of their work. “If pioneer Mormon women in Southeast Idaho ever lied or cheated or stole or committed murder or adultery, the accounts of their lives produced by their female descendants do not record the fact.”

Nevertheless, and surprisingly, while editing out all hints of immorality and criminality, almost a third of Mormon women writing about their grandmothers chose to include episodes that violated Mormon cultural norms. It is the presence of these lapses that most intrigues Swetnam.

For example, Swetnam considers it a Mormon virtue that women work hard without complaint. Two-thirds of Swetnam’s writers portray their grandmothers as cheerfully pitching in to chop wood, cut down trees, bale hay, and otherwise labor as hard as men – all while keeping their homes in perfect order and raising large godfearing families. Yet despite extolling the hard-working virtues of their grandmothers, one biographer revealed that Sarah Ann Porter refused to help her husband build their cabin, choosing instead to sit in the shade and watch him. Sarah Ann wouldn’t even bring drinking water to her husband, and insisted that outdoor cooking was not a woman’s job, forcing her husband to prepare meals for the couple after his day’s work at cabin-building. Lula Homer despised cooking to the extent that she refused to teach her daughters how to do it. Other women complained about the labor of laundry, “and were unabashedly glad when they were prosperous enough to hire out their laundry to poorer women.” Swetnam concludes that all the rhetoric to the contrary, “in reality, pioneer women were no more superhuman than any other women.”

According to Swetnam, most ancestral biographies praise the female Mormon virtues of cleanliness, femininity, and good deportment. Yet the descendant-biographer of Susannah Taysom Jackson delighted in telling of her grandmother’s cutting her hair short, wearing a Stetson, and riding astride her horse. Mary Christina Nelson Braithwaite took such pride in doing field work better than the men that she continued to do the rough labor even after there were hired men and growing sons to help. Other grandmothers used coarse language. “Clearly these women … sometimes were not quite as ‘dainty’ as they might have been.”

Tales of polygamy divided Swetnam’s biographies into two camps. Those written by men tended to praise the cheerful forbearance of women submitting to polygamy, overcoming the hardships, and forging strong relationships with sister wives. Women biographers, though, wrote of the difficulties of plural marriage, and sometimes even the rebellious behavior of their grandmothers. Roemma Garner Terry, confronted by a second wife, made “it so ‘HOT’ for her [the second wife] and made her pick up her duds and get out of there – literally ‘kicked’ her out … and, apparently with no qualms.”

Swetnam continues through several other types of “subversive” or “rebellious” behavior in the lives of pioneer women narrated by their granddaughters, all of which make this an article that should be read in full.

Swetnam’s conclusions are ones that I can endorse from my own years of thought about what to include and what to gloss over in ancestor biographies. “We must deduce that at some level the writers see no contradiction in declaring that flawed grandmothers [are] appropriate subjects for laudatory biography. The suggestion here is clear: one can be a worthy LDS woman without living up all the time to the Mormon church’s ideal vision of woman … Writing such a laudatory biography of an ancestor who sometimes lapsed, I believe, permits a contemporary woman to be more tolerant of her own lapses, recognizing – if only subliminally – that a woman does not have to be perfect to be worthy of praise and honor.”

I recommend this article wholeheartedly to family historians, and suspect that feminists will also find much to think about in these few short pages.



7 Comments »

  1. I will definitely look up this article. I have been finding exactly what you described in the biographies of my ancestors. Not just the exclusion of less than uplifting character traits I knew were there from other sources, but also the inclusion traits seen as virtues. For example Mary Curtis was well known for her hospitality, her integrity (when she sold her butter, it was always overweight) her cooking (buttermilk biscuits specifically) and her always clean packed earth floor.” While I find it far more intersting that she lied to her children (and perhaps her husband) about how old she was when she got married.

    Comment by BruceC — July 2, 2008 @ 9:01 am

  2. Interesting.

    Comment by Edje — July 2, 2008 @ 11:29 am

  3. Yes, interesting. That’s what I meant.

    Comment by BruceC — July 2, 2008 @ 1:03 pm

  4. From my experience reading multitudes of family histories, men are just as prone to egregious whitewashing as women.

    I guess Swetnam hinted at this in the polygamy discussion.

    Comment by Researcher — July 2, 2008 @ 4:02 pm

  5. “The suggestion here is clear: one can be a worthy LDS woman without living up all the time to the Mormon church’s ideal vision of woman … Writing such a laudatory biography of an ancestor who sometimes lapsed, I believe, permits a contemporary woman to be more tolerant of her own lapses, recognizing – if only subliminally – that a woman does not have to be perfect to be worthy of praise and honor.”

    I love this quote, because I think it reflects so well the core foundation of the Gospel – hard work coupled with an understanding that our failures in our efforts to become perfect are less important than the effort itself.

    Comment by Ray — July 2, 2008 @ 11:32 pm

  6. I love that you’re doing this, Ardis. I had no idea this article existed and it’s definitely something I’ll take a look at.

    Comment by David G. — July 3, 2008 @ 9:05 am

  7. [...] Article Review: “Turning to the Mothers: Mormon Women’s Biographies of Their Female Forebears and the Mormon Ch… [...]

    Pingback by Virtual Oases, July 8 « The Exponent — July 8, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

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