KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Few women of the 19th century were as controversial or as maligned as Mormon women because critics, angered by polygamy, often portrayed them as victims of lecherous husbands and a despotic church.
This stereotype has influenced the treatment of Mormon women by historians, an influence that persists in modern times, said Catherine A. Brekus, an associate professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Brekus, a non-Mormon, delivered Saturday's Obert C. and Grace A. Tanner lecture at the 45th annual Mormon History Association Conference convening in Kansas City this weekend. Traditionally, the Tanner lecture features the perspective of an outstanding scholar who does not normally publish or research in Mormon history.
"On one hand, historians outside of the LDS community seem to have been influenced by the caricature of the degraded polygamist wife, and although they have never articulated their reasons for ignoring Mormon women, they seem to assume that they aren't worth studying," observed Brekus, whose research took her to the LDS Church History Library in Salt Lake City,
"On the other hand, scholars who specialize in Mormon history have been so determined to defend 19th century LDS women against lingering stereotypes that they have sometimes exaggerated their agency," she said. "The result is that we are left with a fractured picture of Mormon women as either deluded, downtrodden slaves or fiercely independent matriarchs."
Brekus defined agency as "the ability to take action, to do something." She said an agent is someone or something that has the power to make something occur.
"Given the controversy surrounding polygamy, it is not surprising that Mormon historians have struggled to find the right tone to write about plural wives," Brekus said. "Yet their difficulty suggests they need to think more deeply about their understanding of women's agency."
The field of Mormon history stands at a crossroads, she said.
"While previous generations of historians virtually ignored women, recent scholars have been so determined to portray them as historical agents that they have sometimes exaggerated their freedom to make choices about their lives," Brekus said. "It's almost as if there are two boxes that can be checked: 'oppressive' or 'liberating,' and you can only check one. I think that's never the case in any religion."
Although the problem has no simple solution, Brekus she suggested that a new model of agency be crafted, "a model that recognizes both the capacity of ordinary women to create change and the structural constraints on their agency."
A new definition of agency should recognize that agency includes the reproduction of social structures, as well as their transformation, she said.
"Most of the time people use their agency to uphold the structures that bring meaning and stability to their lives," Brekus said.
"It is hard to understand the rise of the Latter-day Saints in the 19th century without paying attention to the women who sat in the pews every Sunday, raised their children in the faith, volunteered their time and energy to the Relief Society and agreed to participate in plural marriages," she said.
Brekus said a new model should include reconsidering the association of agency with freedom and emancipation.
"Agency is not limited to challenging social structures. It also includes reproducing them," she said.
Even though agency includes "intentionality," or a sense of purpose and direction, it can also be more subtle and modest than the deliberate intention to enact large-scale change, Brekus said.
"When large numbers of people make similar decisions about their lives, they set events in motion that have far-reaching consequences, sometimes unwittingly," she said.
Brekus said agency should be seen as relational and social, as well as individual, that it should be understood as existing on a continuum, and that it is always shaped by cultural norms and structural constraints.
"We should remember that agency takes place within structures as well as against them," she said. "Of course, this is not a new observation, but it bears repeating here because it reminds us that women creatively appropriated LDS history in order to make space for their own importance and authority. Lucy Walker Kimball, for example, made sure that younger Mormons knew that Joseph Smith frowned on men who belittled their wives."