REVIEW: Holbrook and Bowman, eds., Women and Mormonism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

The last fourteen months have been great for scholarship on Mormon women. Primary source compilations in Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings and The First Fifty Years of Relief Society were published early to much acclaim, and each volume is a significant resource for tracing not only LDS women’s traditions but American religious history in general. And then in the summer we received Women and Mormonism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (University of Utah Press, 2016). Edited by established scholars Kate Holbrook and Matthew Bowman, this is a volume of articles that explore the wide gamut of Mormon women’s experience. Most, but not all, were born as papers delivered at a conference on the topic several years ago. Together, they demonstrate a level of methodological, chronological, and topical heft rarely seen in such a project. The scope itself is impressive.

There is something about edited collections that make them the primary hallmarks of scholarship on Mormon women. Previously, the arguably three most important titles in the field were Claudia Bushman’s Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah (Emmeline Press, 1976; reprint, Utah State University Press, 1997), Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Anderson’s Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective (University of Illinois Press, 1987), and Maxine Hanks’s Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism (Signature Books, 1992). Women and Mormonism now joins that esteemed list. In many ways, the volume captures the strengths of the previous books while still avoiding some of their flaws: it has the historical rigor of Mormon Sisters, but is not limited in period and scope; it is as interdisciplinary expanse of Sisters in Spirit without becoming too abstract; and it has the cultural awareness of Women and Authority without coming across as overly activist. And more than any previous volume on the topic, Women and Mormonism addresses race and internationalism in sustained and sophisticated ways.

The volume circles around Catherine Brekus’s significant article “Mormon Women and the Problem of Historical Agency,” which was originally delivered as a Tanner Lecture at MHA a few years ago. (It is reprinted as the lead-article in this volume.) By focusing on the potentials and limits of “agency,” Brekus’s essay argued, historians can engage the work that women have performed within their cultural conditions. How do we understand those who worked inside of patriarchal institutions, rather than break away from them? Mormonism and Women is filled with possible answers. Some are much more positive, like Rachel Cope’s article on three women who struggled, and eventually came to terms, with polygamy; others are more skeptical, like Amanda Hendrix-Komoto’s overview of women, particularly wives of Mormon missionaries, whose possibilities were drastically curtailed. More contemporary approaches include political scientist David Campbell who examines how modern LDS women have become not only accepting but defensive of conservative practices, as well as Melissa Inouye’s thoughtful meditations on cross-cultural perspectives. The final section, which is more reflective, includes personal essays from modern Mormon women trying to make sense of their surrounding world(s). Even if a majority of the essays lean toward the positive, and few really critique the limits of Brekus’s interpretive framework, the end result is a diverse cast of experiences and insights.

The strength of this volume is found in its multivocal, multi-perspective, and multi-disciplinary perspectives. There are more traditional historical treatments by Matthew Bowman on women and social reform, Quincy Newell on the ever-fascinating Jane Manning James, and Jonathan Stapley on women and priesthood authority. (Indeed, Stapley’s careful and exhaustive analysis should be required reading, and I consider it a definitive take on the slippery topic of “priesthood” during the early period.) But there are also more textual- and material-based work, like Laurel Ulrich’s call for historians to be more aware of non-traditional formats of records, Kristine Wright’s analysis on women and routinized ritual, and Jannifer Reeder on Relief Society artifacts. The national and racial diversity presented in this volume is unprecedented in Mormon history. (Which, to be honest, isn’t that high a standard.) The perspectives from Carine Decoo-Vanwelkenhuysen, Melissa Inouye, Jane Hafen, and Mariama Kallon are not only intriguing and well-written, but they provide material for future historians to analyze.

But does the thematic focus of “agency” always hold together? Not necessarily. Like any volume centered on one particular issue, the theme is stretched wide and, at times, beyond recognition. While some approaches are especially prone to exemplify the possibilities of “agency” as a framing concept, like the lived religion essays by Wright and Reeder, others are an odd fit, like the ritual history by Stapley. And by enabling such a broad range of methodologies, some chapters are just odd neighbors: Mariana Kallon’s confessional, if moving, personal account seems awkwardly placed in the same volume that contains essays that dissect those very narrative functions. But that’s perhaps just the cost that comes with such an elaborate and inclusive project. In many ways, it’s a reflection of the community it studies.

Women and Mormonism is the most important essay collection on Mormon women in over two decades. No other book comes close to capturing the topical breadth and analytical depth. Even if it doesn’t receive the type of cultural “splash” that came with Women and Authority in the early-1990s, when several of the participants received ecclesiastical sanction, this volume is just as significant. Scholars of Mormonism would be foolish to not engage the many arguments found within its pages, and the Mormon community would be amiss if it didn’t come to terms with its lessons.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Susan W H says:

    Thanks for this excellent and timely review–my copy of Women and Mormonism arrived yesterday along with the First Fifty Years and I’m anxious to begin reading. I just signed up for a Stanford Cont. Studies class on the history of feminism next quarter. I look forward to several weeks of thoughtful reading and discussion, not to mention this is a good time to reread Brekus.

    Like

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