Claudia Bushman shares more of her insights in this two-part series detailing the lives and experiences of Mormon women in the 19th and early 20th century. Dr. Bushman speaks of ten women who have taken the time to record their life experiences, and as she paraphrases and quotes from each woman’s story, Claudia adds contextual details to show why these stories are all significant. Here’s a list of the featured women:
1) Lucy Mack Smith, whose story gives great insight into the early life of the church and of the prophet Joseph Smith. Lucy, Joseph’s mother, mixes significant historical happenings with the mundane and comical experiences of daily life. Claudia notes that those who want to read Lucy’s words should seek out a copy of Lavina Fielding Anderson’s most recent edition, Lucy’s Book, as previous editions were often heavily edited to purge out some elements of the story (she adds that the editing was sometimes done in such a way that it vilified Emma, Joseph’s first wife, and Lucy because they chose not to travel West with the Saints).
2) Emma Smith’s blessing just after Joseph went to Carthage Jail, which can be found reprinted in Mormon Enigma. Claudia explains that when Joseph was leaving for Carthage, Emma asked for a blessing at his hand. He suggested that she write out her own blessing and he would sign it when he returned home. Joseph was killed by a mob while in the Jail, so the blessing was never signed. But it does offer great insight into the feelings of Emma towards her husband.
3) Charlotte Hafen, a Gentile wrote in 1843 about attending a party at Sidney Rigdon’s house in Nauvoo. We discover that this 9-hour long party included the tying of 5 quilts, an extensive meal, singing songs, and an original dance that started with marching and ended with kissing(!).
4) Mary Isabella Horne writing about the challenges of living in the Salt Lake Valley during the early years—living in a sod house and having to carry an umbrella indoors because of the mud coming down from the ceiling.
5) Ellis Reynolds Shipp: plural wife, mother of several children, and medical doctor. She went to medical school in the East despite a lack of enthusiasm about this career path from her husband. Ellis became pregnant while home for the summer after her first year in med school and returned to school anyways, giving birth just after her exams. Claudia speaks about the many Mormon career women in the Utah period, adding that there were more women doctors in the Utah region than anywhere else in the US.
6) Elizabeth Caine (wife of a friend of the Mormons, Thomas Caine), writes as she travels by wagon from Salt Lake to St George and describes the homes that she visits along the way. She found polygamy repulsive, especially when she saw on older man “going down the generations to his grandchildren’s time to seek a new partner…while she who shared the joys and sorrows of his youth looks on, old and grey.”
7) Claudia’s grandmother, Elizabeth Shupe Gordon (1866-1896) gives an inspiring account of her conversion to the church, speaking of burning “electric thrills” that she felt each time she read from the Book of Mormon.
8) Alice Louise Reynolds: Prof of English & Religion at BYU. She was such a friend to everyone that a group of women decided to organize an Alice Louise Reynolds Club, and there were 15 chapters of this club in the 50s. Never married, she spent her sabbaticals teaching at other universities and traveling. Amy Brown Lyman became her biographer, bio was published by ALR Clubs.
9) The Newberry-award winning author Virginia Sorensen.[Note: she mentions Sorensen elsewhere in the podcast and doesn’t discuss her much at this point]. Those who want to learn more about Mormon life in the early 20th century would enjoy reading Where Nothing is Long Ago, a collection of short stories by Sorensen.
10) Historian Juanita Brooks was this very powerful intellectual who lived a fairly traditional life. Claudia retells a humorous incident from Juanita’s childhood and then discusses her work as a historian: she would always kept the ironing board up and had a basket of dampened clothes near her desk and when someone came by she’d start ironing so they’d never know that she was really writing [note: this reminds me of the stories I’ve read of Jane Austen hiding her writing under her needlework]. Brooks would travel on overnight buses to do research in Salt Lake or at the Huntington Library.
The discussion ends with interviewer John Dehlin asking Claudia some general questions about women and religion. Some interesting points in this section occur when Claudia decries those that leave the church. She says,
“Leaving the church is not any kind of an answer to a better life. That’s just like leaving something good for outer darkness. It’s just better to stick with the church and try and make something out of it.”
Yet she also discusses how much the church has changed since she was younger, explaining that her grandchildren have told her that they’ve “never had a happy experience at church.” Claudia says that her childhood and teen years in the church were joyful and happy and that the “block” scheduling has destroyed much of the fun. “Who’s gonna teach us to tango now?” she asks as she reminisces about the tango dancing lesson she had annually in her ward.
Claudia encourages women to make their own way in the church, organizing projects and special interest groups. She says that those who are miserable in the church should write about their disaffection, leaving their thoughts for future generations. As she says at the beginning of Part I:
“It’s the people who write, who last. If any woman out there has any inclination to to remembered in the future, the next few generations, she’d just better get busy and write out her story, her experiences.”
Some questions for those of you who listen to the podcast:
1) Which the women she profiled were new to you? Which of their writings/stories did you find most compelling?
2) How do you express your feelings about the church? Do you write them down? Do you expect or hope that someday someone (a Mormon historian, perhaps) will be using your words to tell about the condition of women in the church in the 21st century? Do you see blogs as an accurate recording of the lives of contemporary LDS women?
3) If you could organize a special project or interest group in your ward, what would it be? Would you want to learn to tango? :)
Note: the photo above is of Alice Louise Reynolds.