SALT LAKE CITY — There have and always will be challenges in writing Mormon women's history, but the future is full of promising possibilities, a panel of female scholars and authors said during an evening discussion Oct. 27 at the University of Utah.
More than 40 students and observers packed into a classroom in the Tanner Humanities Center to hear Linda King Newell, Kate Holbrook and Colleen McDannell discuss the topic: "Writing Women's History in Mormonism: Old Challenges, New Prospects."
The panel discussion was the second in a four-part series in a fall course on "The Intellectual Life of Mormonism," directed by Utah Valley University professor Brian Birch. The series is also in conjunction with the Marlin K. Jensen Scholar in Residence program at the University of Utah.
Each member of the panel offered remarks before addressing questions from the audience.
A self-described "accidental historian," Newell recalled living in Ohio and hearing a speaker portray the life of Emma Hale Smith in a negative light. That experience sparked a desire for Newell to learn all she could about the Prophet Joseph Smith's wife and prompted her and Valeen Tippetts Avery to co-author "Mormon Enigma," a biography of Emma Smith, published in 1984.
"When I said I was interested in co-authoring a biography of Emma Hale Smith, no one laughed, and for that I have been forever grateful," Newell said.
The Newell-Avery duo tackled the project despite needing to care for young children and initially finding there was little written about the "elect lady." What they produced became the first substantial record of Emma's life in more than a century. The book was recently named one of the five best books on Mormons and Mormonism by Judith Freeman in the Wall Street Journal, Newell said.
"This journey has literally changed my life in so many ways," said Newell, a past president of the John Whitmer Historical Association and the Mormon History Association.
Holbrook, a specialist in women's history in the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, emphasized three main points. First, there is a need for better mentors in the field.
Second, avoid putting historians in categories that will limit working with one another, she said.
"Collaboration makes for better history and understanding," said Holbrook, a co-editor of "The First Fifty Years of the Relief Society." "We need to move beyond those prejudices."
Third, Mormon female historians should broaden their vision of relevant source material and tell corresponding stories, Holbrook said.
"We have to bring the conversation, the stories we want to tell, into topics relevant to broader discussions of women in religion, or relevant religious history," Holbrook said. "Whatever the topic is we want to explore, we really need to figure out how it relates to other conversations outside of Mormon history and bring those conversations into the research we are doing."
McDannell, the Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies and a professor of history at the University of Utah, followed Holbrook with three observations of her own.
First, there is no shortage of diaries, journals, memoirs, oral and life histories, autobiographies, letters and other documents to draw from, McDannell said.
"Their voices are strong and unrelenting. Scholars have no dearth of primary source material to write women's histories," McDannell said.
Second, women are speaking but are they heard, especially by scholars? With all the available source material, there should be more published, she said.
Third, history scholarship of Mormon women takes a long time to be produced.
McDannell concluded that it's more difficult for women to write history because society is less interested in the humanities. Professional historians want to do it but are stiff-armed by fewer paying jobs and academic opportunities.
"Writing histories, rather than a collection of stories, is not easy," McDannell said. "To write history you need time, discipline and knowledge. We have many histories of white men because white men have had that privilege. Mormon women still seem to be split between professional dreams, domestic realities and church responsibilities. This, I feel, has an impact on writing history. Women will have to concentrate more fully on the game of modern knowledge production."
Questions for the panel ranged from the kinds of categories and topics in Mormon history that should be addressed to how can society be encouraged to support the production of more Mormon women's history.
When asked to identify lessons learned from decades of writing Mormon women's history, Holbrook said there has been a tremendous shift in a positive direction.
"It's completely different terrain than it was even 15 years ago," Holbrook said. "It seems to me there is a real level of trust by leaders of the church in the work the Church History Department is doing. That's an important difference."
One person asked McDannell and panel to name several of the most important stories that should be written in Mormon women's history.
McDannell pointed to the grassroots of Mormon women in political agitation and political organizing.
"There were so many women state legislators that nobody knows about," she said. "How did they do all of that?"
Holbrook added that she would like to see more analysis of the way women's participation in society, church and home life has been examined from outside perspectives.
Reid L. Neilson, assistant church historian and recorder for the LDS Church, attended the panel discussion and felt it demonstrated that Mormon women's history is one of the most promising fields in the larger field of American religious studies.
"It's exciting to see the different narratives, sources and trajectories, and the ways that both women and male scholars are taking these sources to tell new stories and old stories," Neilson said. "And it's exciting to see how you are getting both institutional voices, and you're also getting personal, private voices, and it's blending together to create a beautiful mosaic of important voices that need to be heard and will be heard in the decades to come."
The third event in the series, a look at contemporary scholarship on race and gender within Mormon studies, will take place on Nov. 17.
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