Yesterday evening the Mormon Women’s History Initiative sponsored an evening in Salt Lake’s historic Tenth Ward chapel with the series editors and some of the authors of individual chapters of Women of Faith in the Latter Days. Vol. 1. A hundred or more audience members – mostly women, but some men, too – enjoyed an interesting, fast-moving presentation.
Welcome, by Cherry Silver, on behalf of the Mormon Women’s History Initiative.
Invocation: Lisa Olsen Tait
Musical Number: Women of Zion, sung by Anya Bybee, Jessica Liening, and Brittany Chapman; accompanied on piano by Emily Utt.
Brittany Chapman introduced her co-editor (she amended that with a laugh and assured us that she was his co-editor) Richard E. Turley, who explained the origins of the series: A couple of years ago at a dinner with several women, including Sherri Dew of Deseret Book, they discussed Latter-day Saint women’s history. Somewhere in that discussion Sherri Dew suggested “doing something” on that history. After thinking about it for a little while, he decided that what was needed was not a single volume on a single woman, or even on a couple of women. He wanted to do a “seed project” that would stimulate additional writing on Latter-day Saint women.
Eventually the idea developed to create a series of vignettes on individual women, combining their biographies with some sort of devotional stories by the women themselves, something that could be picked up by Latter-day Saint women at home and in their church classes. He wanted these stories and these women to become household names, not to be merely enshrined in some obscure scholarly publication. And after thinking about the matter for a while, he thought Brittany Chapman would be the right historian to team up with on such a project.
Brittany Chapman: When she received the first call from Rick, she was surprised that he even knew who she was. She kept her appointment, of course, and when he asked her, ‘How much free time do you have?” she responded, “I’m flexible.” From that first conversation, it felt to her like the right thing to do, a “beautiful idea,” and as the project continued she was amazed by how everything came together in such a timely way.
People keep using the term “Mormon Moment,” she said. “I feel like this is a moment for Mormon women’s history, as well. There is great interest; people are hungry to know the truth of the female past in the Church.” This series will help to fill that hunger, created in part by the publication of Daughters in My Kingdom.
Brittany gave an overview of the series, which is to fill seven volumes, each volume containing the stories of women born within a given 25-year span, continuing to women born as recently as 1970.
She then introduced the authors of two of the chapters in this volume.
Sherilyn Farnes, author of “‘I Put My Trust in Him’: Eliza Maria Partridge Lyman,” told about her longstanding interest in the Partridge family (her master’s thesis was on Eliza’s father, Edward Partridge). She told about using Eliza’s diary, which she commenced as early as 1846 and continued through at least the end of 1884. After summarizing Eliza’s biography, she told of two traits she especially admired about Eliza, as revealed in her diary. One was her sense of humor (she described one very cold night on the overland trail thus: “It must be there was not room in the wagon for the frost to get in, it was so full of folks”). Another was her sense of looking forward, her realization that she couldn’t change the past but could make something of the future. This trait was illustrated by the death of her first son, a child she bore on the trail and carried in her arms almost continually until he died some months later; she mourned his loss, but would “try to be reconciled” and “prepare to meet him” in a future world. This attitude of looking forward was reflected on through the very last entry in the diary, where Eliza – a woman who had been on the move her entire life – recorded that she had “bought some land to build on.”
Wayne K. Hinton, author of “‘Tried and True Saint’: Maria Jackson Normington Parker,” a career historian and teacher who is now working with the Joseph Smith Papers project, told of hearing as a Primary child about the Willie and Martin handcart companies. He was so moved that when he went home he asked his mother and his father’s mother whether he had any ancestors who came with handcarts. He learned that some of his mother’s family had come with the Ellsworth handcart company, and that some of his father’s ancestors had traveled with the companies that had met with disaster late in 1856.
He then summarized Maria’s biography. The audience had an interesting glimpse into the rigorous editorial process conducted by the series editors: The description of Maria’s physical sufferings in the early winter of 1856 is quite graphic, but the editors would not allow Bro. Hinton to include one detail about Maria’s reported loss of fingernails, because he could not adequately document that detail.
Next, the two editors shared some stories from the book that they especially admired – they refused to use the word “favorite” for these or any other entries because, Rick said, as the father of 6 and grandfather of 10, he knows that there is no such thing as a favorite in these circumstances.
He did, however, particularly appreciate the life of Abigail Abbott, who, upon learning of a planned commemoration of the Mormon Battalion to be held in Salt Lake City in 1852, wrote to Brigham Young to report the life of a woman who had carried on in the absence of her Battalion husband. Her story was a valiant one, but Rick especially appreciated Abigail’s awareness of the constant presence of women throughout the history of the Church. He hoped we all were (or would become) conscious of that fact, that women didn’t make token appearances in the story of the Church, although it sometimes seems that way when we use male-dominated historical records. He said, “I hope all of us can get that into our thinking of Latter-day Saint history. It is not just a man’s story.”
Brittany most enjoyed learning about the uniquely female experiences of her sisters of the past, their social life, sense of sisterhood, and their care for each other in the uniquely female experience of childbirth. She summarized the life of Martha Spence Heywood, who at age 38 and unmarried, had little hope of becoming a wife or mother at the time she crossed the plains. She did become a plural wife to Joseph Heywood and accompanied him on an assignment to help settle Southern Utah, where she became a mother with only brief help from another woman at the time her child was delivered, then was left alone to figure out on her own how to care for her babe.
Next, we heard from two more chapter authors.
Jay Burrup, author of “‘I Have Faith in Israel’s God’: Mary Bathgate Shelley,” told of his distant relation to Mary (she was a wife of one of his wife’s ancestors, but not a direct ancestor herself). Keepa’s review of Women of Faith in the Latter Days, linked above, focused on Mary’s story so I will not repeat it here, except to recall how remarkable it is that an oral composition survives, composed by a half-literate woman of that era who began her working life as a child working in the underground darkness of a coal mine. Read her story, and like Jay, you will cheer for the feisty older woman who cheered for her traveling company in her Scottish brogue: “Huree for the handkerts!”
Kerri Robinson, coauthor (with her sister) of “‘The Joy and the Song’: Julia Hills Johnson,” told of her travels to find the story of her ancestor. Unlike the series editors and the other authors who spoke at this event who are experienced historians, Kerri’s background and temperament lean toward historical fiction and an interest in family connections. She spoke of seeking, and feeling, a spiritual connection with Julia as she visited places Julia had lived, seeking inspiration and some sense of speaking to Julia’s soul.
Brittany next explained the submission process, which can be reviewed on the Women of Faith project website. Submissions are now being solicited for Vol. 3 (women born between 1846 and 1870), with proposals due by June 1, 2012.
Cherry Silver then invited those in the audience who had stories appearing in Vol. 1, either on paper or in the ebook edition with its bonus chapters, to introduce themselves; a surprising number of authors were present.
A brief question and answer period elicited some interesting information:
When asked how the editors would field an anticipated flood of submissions for the volumes covering women born in recent years, Rick said they would be looking for women with a great diversity of experiences; the quality of submissions – those that wouldn’t require massive reworking by the editors – would also no doubt influence selection.
How have the editors’ views of Mormon history changed from working on this project? someone asked. Brittany said that history has become more “real” to her as she comes to know intimately these women who lived through the events she reads about. Rick finds himself wanting to find women’s sources to incorporate their stories in every project he works on.
Someone asked about the requirements of documentation, when so many stories were known only because they had been passed down through the years. Rick gave a tactful answer regarding the necessity for documentation – which we had seen illustrated earlier in the exclusion from publication of a detail that could not be adequately sourced. He admitted that there was nothing about a written record that made the report of an event more accurate – writing something down doesn’t make it truer than it had been five minutes before – but contemporary written records do help to keep stories from morphing over time through repeated telling. He also noted that the editors are open to other types of documentation besides the strictly written record, realizing that in oral societies there may well be no written documentation. But he did make it clear, without saying it in so many words, that they aren’t soliciting hagiography based solely on family lore and the wishful thinking of imaginative descendants.
Cherry Silver thanked the participants, both speakers and audience.
Benediction: Kate Holbrook.
Refreshments (and if they ever announce that the same mango salsa will be served at future gatherings, prepare for a standing room only crowd).
Andrea Radke-Moss took quite a few photographs which are appearing on the Facebook page of the Mormon Women’s History Initiative this morning.