We have looked at three different ways women often – but, of course, not always– appear in general Church histories. These portrayals are not satisfying to many of us, not because we don’t recognize the historical truth that some women have been less than praiseworthy; not because we don’t recognize that Mormon women have endured extraordinary hardship because of the peculiar history of our people; and not because we don’t value the love and loyalty and personal service for which we are sometimes inordinately and indiscriminately praised. Rather, we don’t find these stories satisfying because we sense they are incomplete, and they don’t adequately represent our own sense of ourselves, and don’t give us many women to cheer for. We don’t see ourselves in our own history very often. We sense that the women in our histories are valued for reasons that we don’t find especially inspiring, or we find that the qualities we most value in ourselves are not the ones that seem to be valued by those who tell the stories.
None of us aspires to be a Witch, to be destructive or cause others to stumble – or, if we have somehow found ourselves in that role for some reason, we know that we are more than our Witchiness, and we suspect the same is true about the Witches in our history.
We generally don’t aspire to be a Damsel in Distress, either. Trials and suffering, at times acute, come into our lives as a natural feature of mortality, some of them directly connected to our religious belief or practice. We don’t want to be celebrated for our suffering, or celebrate the suffering that women in our history have endured. What matters isn’t the suffering – what matters is the way someone faces that difficulty, and works to overcome it, and becomes a better, stronger woman because of it. History that emphasizes the trouble and neglects the triumph leaves us uneasy.
To Any Wife
By Rosannah Cannon
As long as you are speaking, I have found
Our minds converge upon a common ground;
The price of food, the way the ivy grows,
Familiar topics any stranger knows.
Then suddenly you cease to speak and lapse
Into a shrouded silence, whence perhaps
You later come a little less enthralled
Than you had been before the quiet called.
A little less irrevocably mine,
Though not by any outward sound or sign
Could I divine that restless hidden spring,
At once so fearful and disquieting.
Our life seems quite the same, yet I can sense
Your world is growing somehow more immense.
There is a part of you I never shared,
Where your soul wanders, mine has never fared.
Never am I to know what thoughts are yours,
Hidden from me beyond what unseen doors.
These are the secrets no man yet has known,
Too frail and fine, too utterly your own!
From 1928 —
“I suppose every Mormon woman has measured herself at one time or another against ‘the pioneers,’” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once wrote. “Am I as stalwart? As self-reliant? As devoted to the gospel? As willing to sacrifice? Could I crush my best china to add glitter to a temple, bid loving farewell to a missionary husband as I lay in a wagon bed with fever and chills, leave all that I possessed and walk across the plains to an arid wilderness?” She says that her “full pedigree of handcart-pushing, homesteading grandmothers” may have been the reason she said to her obstetrician as she was being wheeled into a state-of-the-art delivery room, “I never would have made a pioneer!”
I suppose a lot of us have this idea in the back of our minds that “I could never have been a pioneer.” Our mental image of the pioneer woman, able to meet confidently and competently every unimaginable hardship, with a song on her lips and a prayer in her heart as she tucked a stray wisp of hair under her clean, pressed, and starched sunbonnet, is one that has grown in our minds from our earliest Primary stories. In contrast to their stalwart example, we have trouble coping with toddlers and dinner and visiting teaching, and if we could even find the sunbonnet in the laundry basket, it most definitely wouldn’t be ironed and starched.
But of course our image of the pioneer woman isn’t an accurate one. That pioneer woman is more akin to the Princess in the Tower of fairy tale – the beautiful, perfect lady, aloof from the dirt and chores of real life, the ideal woman (with “idea-l” meaning she is an idea and not a reality) who alternately inspires and intimidates us. Too often, the women in our published Church histories are as aloof and unknowable as the Princess in the Tower.
The Shining Heart
By Sibyl Spande Bowen
CHARACTER DESCRIPTION AND RESUME—1ST INSTALLMENT
In the moldy decay of the old family mansion on Puget Sound lives
“MISS BRILL” CAREY, spinster of 55, christened Brilliant Alaska in honor of her birthplace, and earning a sparse living as a seamstress. Her interest in life is centered in her niece, red-haired
NELL CAREY, who has ambition to be an artist. Lack of means to study and the opposition of her fiance are defeating the cause of art and hastening the day of her marriage to
FRED NAGLE, practical, unromantic young chicken farmer, who believes money should stay in the bank and a woman should stay in the home. He is determined to see that Nell finds her place in his home.
So far in this series we have looked at the relatively scant attention given to individual women in general histories of the Church (acknowledging that much fine work has been done in the realm of biography and on the Relief Society organization), and to one way in which individual women are included in Mormon history (in the less than flattering role of “wicked witches”). Before continuing, I should perhaps clarify that I don’t find anything inherently wrong in either practice: If women’s contributions to the rise and development of the Kingdom have been almost exclusively in the domestic sphere, then we wouldn’t expect to find them in histories of the more public sphere. I don’t happen to believe that is true – I think it more likely that women’s actions, both public and domestic, haven’t always been recognized as significant contributions to the Kingdom, or that historians have had a little difficulty shaking off the old habits of thought that the only history that matters is made by kings and presidents and generals.
Likewise, there is nothing wrong with historians’ writing about women who have played negatives roles in Church history. Negative actions shouldn’t be omitted out of some misplaced sense of chivalry when they did have an effect on the course of the Church – Miss or Mrs. Hubble did cause confusion in the Church at Kirtland, and was a proximate cause of Joseph’s seeking divine wisdom in the proper order within the Church. That event, and Ms. Hubble’s involvement, is a legitimate event for inclusion in published histories. As Keepa’s readers have pointed out in the discussion following that post when discussing Emma Smith’s shifting reputation, no story about any person’s role in Church history is complete without recognizing the broader circumstances of that person’s life, and the effect of that person’s actions on the Church and its other members.
That brings us to a second and very common way in which women appear in Church history: as Damsels in Distress, facing persecution in the Midwest, harsh physical conditions in the West, and the scorn of the world in all times and places.
By Thelma Ireland
Scientists can now bring rain.
This fact has brought them fame.
But let me hang my washing out,
And I can do the same.
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“I was brought up a Baptist,” Eva Rowe Salway wrote to a granddaughter in 1946, “and was always interested in religion, but somehow I could not swallow hell, and the three-in-one doctrine. … After my marriage I stopped that church and tried many others.”
Eva tried Evangelist meetings, and, after leaving her native Guernsey for Southampton, England, she went to the Church of England. She was bitterly disappointed when the preacher of one congregation told her she was “saved,” when she felt no different from before. “I left his home broken-hearted. I had asked for bread, and he had given me a stone. … When my brother was baptized, I felt that if I was baptized I would then feel saved. Perhaps that was what I was missing. I was baptized, but I was in deeper despair than ever after the excitement and novelty was over. I took a class in Sunday school, went to prayer meeting and took part, but gradually fell away.”
She again“went to the Baptist church, but they talked over my head. Went to Plymouth Brethren – I think I liked them best as they seemed more sincere as a congregation. I did not bother with the Catholics then, as I had often gone as a visitor with friends. I tried Wesleyan – they had a good choir, a good preacher and was close to home. … Then I went to an undenominational church. … How I longed for a church! I was surrounded by them, but could find none for me.”
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