Winter 1993, Volume 10.3
LAUREL THATCHER ULRICH
An Epiphany In A Broom Closet
In my tiny town in the heart of Mormon Idaho, scriptures were as much a part of daily life as potatoes. We read the Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments, and with equal reverence the Book of Mormon, a work translated by Joseph Smith from golden plates buried by an ancient American prophet in the Hill Cumorah. We also read Joseph Smith's later revelations compiled in The Doctrine & Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price. As our Sunday School teachers reminded us, the Latter-day scriptures weren't a substitute for the Bible. They were a "further witness."
I have been thinking lately about a passage from the Old Testament that is so important to Latter-day Saints that in variant form it is repeated four times in the Doctrine & Covenants. I quote it as it appears in the King James translation of Malachi 4:5-6 and in D. & C. 128:17:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
In my youth, this passage had about as much appeal as a handful of All-Bran. The "Spirit of Elijah" was a rote phrase aging genealogists stirred into their milk to keep them fit for the race back to Adam.
I confess I don't actually remember the names or faces of any of the genealogists in my ward in Sugar City, Idaho. They may have been the very same Brothers and Sisters who coached the boys in basketball, directed our traveling theatricals, or scooped up banana splits at the ward bazaar. But in memory they remain the gray-haired, absent-minded, bookish types who gave dull talks in Sunday night sacrament meeting. They might just as well have been professors.
It is with some trepidation, therefore, that I confess to having been touched by Elijah's spirit.
In 1965, my husband and I bought our first house, a 1914 gambrel-roofed colonial on Dedham Street in Newton Center, Massachusetts. In Idaho this would have been an old house; in New England it was hardly adolescent. It had a furnace, nice old radiators painted metallic gray, a new roof, a reliable water heater, electricity in all the rooms, a beautiful gumwood double mantle in the living room, golden oak wainscoting in the dining room, a corner fireplace in one upstairs bedroom, a big old tub with clawed feet, and a sharp-angled staircase leading to a finished room in the attic. The one problemand it was a big onewas the kitchen. There were no cupboards. A soapstone sink, pitted from hard use, hung under one of the two small windows. Fortunatelyor unfortunatelymy husband, Gael, was a handyman. With no money and little time we began what turned out to be a five-year, late-into-Saturday-night and on holidays remodeling project.
On weekdays Gael commuted forty-five minutes each way on Boston's infamous Route 128. At home I coped with three and then four children in a neighborhood divided between the aging residents of big old houses like ours and well-to-do suburbanites with newish houses, diaper services, and cleaning ladies. On Sundays we drove thirty minutes past Catholic churches and Jewish bakeries to the Latter-day Saint meeting house in Cambridge. The children and I returned on Tuesday mornings for Relief Society and on Thursday afternoons, fighting rush hour traffic, to Primary. On Tuesday nights Gael ran the Scout troopat least until he was called to be Bishop, the presiding lay officer of our congregation.
I was 27-years-old when we moved into the house in Newton, and I was determined that neither my neighbors nor my brothers and sisters at church would discover my incompetence. Once in awhile my children exposed me, as on the spring day two-year-old Nathan strutted down the sidewalk without any clothes, scandalizing the proper ladies next door. At church that same child, as I recall, delighted in sliding under the benches toward his father, who was trying to look dignified at the podium. I was an earnest mother, a compulsive church worker, and a reluctant but industrious housewife. I appliqued stories onto my children's quilts, spent weeks preparing the Spiritual Living lessons I gave on the first Tuesday of each month, baked bread, scrubbed calcimine from the upstairs ceilings, and bottled Bosc pears gleaned from a backyard in Belmont.
Have you ever eaten a Bosc pear? They have rough brown skins and exaggeratedly skinny necks, almost impossible to peel without breaking. They are difficult to fit into canning jars, and they are too sweet even in a very light syrup. But they were free. When a woman in Belmont told her next door neighbor she was going to let them rot on the tree, a half-dozen Relief Society sisters and their husbands showed up for the harvest, pioneers on an urban frontier.
Gael and I were charter members of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon
Thought, which began publication in California in 1966, the first outburst of what Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton have called the "unsponsored sector" of contemporary Mormonism (Arrington and Bitton 308, 327-328). In some ways we were the classic readers described in the preface to the first issue. Relocated outside "the cloisters of a Rocky Mountain Zion," we were trying to reconcile the faith of our fathers with "a restrained skepticism born of the university, the office and the laboratory" (Johnson 5-6). At least Gael's skepticism was born in the laboratory; mine was more likely born in the kitchen. I had been raised to idealize the role of wife and mother, yet I found myself not only ill-prepared butas I then thoughtill-suited for such a calling. I had read Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique when it was published in 1963 and had recognized "the problem with no name," but I was ambivalent about solutions. I still believed that my deepest conflicts were personal rather than general. If I were a better person, I reasoned, a more Christ-like or less-neurotic person, I would not find it so difficult to keep my identity while caring for others. I struggled to fit my own needs into the margins of my duties as a wife, mother, and Latter-day Saint.
Emboldened by my success in improving my children's nap times to complete a Relief Society-sponsored guidebook to Boston (a little volume that eventually sold 20,000 copies), I began a part-time M.A. program at Simmons College. I took one course at a time, scrambling each semester to find something compatible with our church-bound, child-bound schedule. I can see myself now poised at the end of my driveway in a Volkswagen bug on a Wednesday morning, waiting to transfer Nathan to a neighbor's car, so I could plunge into the early morning traffic moving toward Boston. If my friend wasn't late and I succeeded in finding a parking place on Brookline Avenue, I could be in class by 10, and back in Newton to greet Karl and Mindy at lunch time. I thought of my intellectual life as a secret drug, a pick-me-up that helped me face the true work of my life. Gael used to joke, "Tuition is cheaper than a psychiatrist."
Looking back I am astonished at how few compromises I made either with my studies or my Mormon identity. I gave up Tupperware parties, television, and sleep, but not much else. I took a semester off to revise A Beginner's Boston, but stayed with a course in ancient literature even though I was expecting a baby at the end of the semester. I missed only one week of classes. Reading Lucretious in the hospital, I returned to take the final exam when Thatcher was less then two weeks old. As I recall, I had an excruciating headache that morning. My friend, Jeannette Franklin, handed me a bottle of aspirin as she took the just-fed baby from my arms.
One winter day in the midst of my household dutieslet's say I had just discovered half a box of Cheerios sprinkled across the front entryI rushed into the kitchen for a broom. Our broom closet was one of the last vestiges of the 1914 house. Tall and deep, its interior still painted the cheerful 1950s lime green that had once graced the entire kitchen, it now stood behind a new rift-cut oak door, one of three on this wall, all stained a rich walnut, to set off the stark white walls of our renovation. From the outside the three doors seemed to hide identical cabinets. In fact, one door disguised water pipes, another hid a narrow cupboard for canned goods, the shelves fitted between studs. Only the original closet had any depth. It was a great keeping place for paper bags and bird seed as well as brooms, mops, and the Sears canister vacuum cleaner.
I don't know how to tell you what happened that day. All I can say is that I felt like I was in one of those dreams where you find a room in your house you didn't know was there. I opened my broom closet on a luminescent green shaft extending upward into some unseen space beyond the confusion of the kitchen yet somehow connected to it. If I were Annie Dillard I would tell you how I climbed up that shaft, hand over hand through air, past the calcimine ceilings, past the unpainted horsehair plaster, and slipped through the roof into the sky, asbestos shingles falling like leaves around me. But mine is an historian's, not a poet's, story. I don't recall moving. There was simply a tiny moment of illumination. In that transcendent microsecond, I felt rather than heard myself say, "Grandma Thatcher, what was it really like?"
There was no still small voice whispering the direction I should take, just that luminous green and the question. Yet for an historian, getting the question right is often the most difficult thing.
I didn't plan to become an historian. I majored in English at the University of Utah, and I stayed with literature at Simmons. Yet as a fourth-generation Latter-day Saint I breathed the history of my people. I was nine years old when the Church celebrated the centennial of the pioneer passage to Utah. I entered my teens singing the centennial anthem nonagenarian Ruth May Fox composed for the youth of the church:
Firm as the mountains around us,
Stalwart and brave we stand
On the rock our fathers planted
For us in this goodly land.
I still catch the smell of sage when I hear a congregation sing the resounding chorus: "And we hear the desert singing: Carry on, carry on, carry on!" (255-56). For me the link to the pioneers was direct and personal. My grandfather Thatcher, born in 1869, used to like to tell us he had known all the Latter-day prophets except Joseph Smith. His parents and grandparents had been with Joseph in Nauvoo and had made the trek to Utah with Brigham Young.
Grandpa was a little man, barely five feet four, with gnarled hands and thin sandy-gray hair. He was not only a wonderful story teller but a passionate reciter of scripture. In the midst of a perfectly wonderful yarn, he would grow intense, plant an expressive hand on the knee of whatever child happened to be seated on the hassock near his chair, and begin to prophesy, his blue eyes remote behind the spiraling circles of his thick glasses. Cataracts had left him nearly blind, but he didn't need a Book of Mormon or a Bible. He could call up whole pages of scripture memorized fifty or sixty years before. He especially enjoyed apocalyptic prophecies like those in Malachi:
But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner's fire, and like fuller's soap.
When I read that passage today, I hear Handel but I see Grandpa. As a child I was certain fuller's soap had something to do with the way the veins stood out high and dark on his mottled hands. I've noticed lately that my hands have acquired the same blotchy freckles. My father had them too.
In recalling my grandfather's stories, I am following a cultural pattern. Among the Mormons, as Wallace Stegner has observed, "Great-grand-daughters edit the jottings of their pioneer ancestors as piously as they go to the temple to be baptized for the dead, and if great-grandfather was too occupied to keep notes, his recollective yarns will be gathered up and published as reminiscences" (Stegner 1). Stegner's focus on greatgranddaughters is suggestive. Women may do the gathering, but the stories they preserve are of men. Androcentrism is a hard habit to break. Notice how in his own commentary on Mormon mythmaking, Stegner slips ever so subtly from a focus on "men and women" to a vision of bewhiskered males.
In their loving memorials, the men and women who came out the hard way look like photographs taken by infra-red light, imposing but transparent and unreal. They loom taller as time passes; their harsh and violent qualities soften; their beards achieve a Mosaic dignity; they walk through Mormon history with the tread of Jacob or Abraham. (Stegner 4)
My Grandmother's name was Rachel. Rachel Serena Folkman. She was the daughter of handcart pioneers. Her mother, Serena Anderson, caught the gospel net in Christiansand, Norway. Her father, Jeppa Folkman, was the first Mormon convert in Copenhagen, Denmark. Serena was the last and youngest of Jeppa's three wives. They settled in the Danish-Mormon village of Plain City, Utah, where my grandmother was born August 20, 1871.
Grandma Thatcher was a big-boned woman with kind blue eyes and thick gray braids wound around her head. My older brothers remember seeing her at the kitchen stove making Danish pancakes or frying donuts. In my memories she is always in her brown lounge chair or in bed, confined by a hip fracture that never healed. She must have suffered from osteoporosis. Grandma gave me a knitted afghan for my doll when I was two and when I was twelve my first copy of Little Women. I think of her as a happy person, though I remember once hearing her moaning in the bedroom, telling Aunt Lale that though she had given birth to twelve children, eleven of them without the aid of a doctor, she had never experience such pain as her hip had caused her. She cried for a "hypo" and prayed to be reunited with the four sons who had died. I don't remember Grandma Thatcher ever telling stories about the olden days.
In September of 1970 Gael and I moved seventy miles north of Boston to the small tree-lined college town of Durham, New Hampshire. After five years as a research engineer, he began a new career as a college professor. I enrolled in a graduate seminar on the sixteenth-century English poet Edmund Spenser, hoping to transfer the credit to my still-unfinished Simmons degree. I read The Faerie Queen between canning tomatoes, pushing Thatcher in the swing, and cutting up old wool skirts and jackets to make a quilt. Someone with a sense of humor had called me to be "homemaking counselor" in the Stake Relief Society.
Meanwhile, with a group of friends from my old ward in Cambridge, I was trying to come to terms with the emerging women's movement. Our group had begun meeting in June "just to talk." By July we had volunteered to edit a women's issue of Dialogue. That was pretty presumptuous considering that we had barely begun to identify our own problems, let alone imagine solutions. But we were heady with the success of our work together on the second edition of A Beginner's Boston. I drove the hour and a half to Boston once or twice a month for our meetings, usually bringing a New Hampshire friend with me. She and I continued each discussion on the long ride home, missing stoplights and taking wrong turns as we simultaneously threaded our way through traffic and through the tangle of emotions the discussions aroused.
The women's movement was still in its infancy. NOW was barely four years old; the more radical liberationists were just beginning to get attention. Jokingly we referred to ourselves as the "Mormon cell of women's lib." My own copy of Robin Morgan's explosive anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful, a gift from one of our members, is inscribed in red "To Laurel My Sister," an intentional double entendre. Our discussions were radical only in comparison to the Relief Society meetings we still attended faithfully. We talked about birth control, working women, church politics and the latest Relief Society lessons, about things we knew well, like housework, and things we knew not at all, like the relevance of feminism to working class women. Most of the time we did not know whether to be angry at our mothers, our husbands, or God. To our dismay we often found ourselves angry with each other.
Among the younger women in our group was a graduate student at Tufts University, a woman newly married and childless. When she turned in an essay that derided housewives with nothing better to do than "polish the polish," the matrons among us were incensed. Was she implying that theyor their mothershad wasted their lives? She was equally distressed, convinced that their reaction had less to do with the essay itself than with the liberated objectives she had outlined for her own life. I phoned her after the meeting, hoping to conciliate. "Thank you," she said coolly, "but I really must go. My husband has cooked dinner, and I'm afraid it's getting cold."
To use current academic jargon, we were trying to learn a new form of discourse. The church has taught us only two, "giving lessons" and "bearing testimony." Both required closure even more than affirmation. We were frightened by group discussions that sent people home with their knots untied. I think that is why we eventually turned with such enthusiasm to history. History gave us stories rather than dogmas. I will never forget the exhilaration of walking in late to one of the Dialogue meetings and hearing Claudia Bushman reading from a manuscript submitted by Leonard Arrington, an adaptation of his presidential address to the Western History Association the year before. Among the "formidable, intelligent, resourceful, and independent" nineteenth-century women it described was Dr. Ellis Reynolds Shipp, a Mormon polygamous wife and mother who graduated from the Philadelphia Women's Medical College in 1878 (Arrington 1971: 22-23). All of us had grown up hearing about faithful (usually nameless) sisters who had borne children in tents or crushed their best china to make plaster for the temple. Arrington's essay gave us a new kind of heroism.
In retrospect the essay is all the more remarkable because there was so little women's history, let alone western women's history, available at the time. The historical preface to Morgan's anthology had mentioned only two works, Eleanor Flexner's Century of Struggle and Aileen Kraditor's Up From the Pedestal, both published two years before. None of us had read Flexner or Kraditor, but we knew and respected Arrington, whose Great Basin Kingdom had launched a new professionalism in Mormon history. In a 1968 essay, he had identified "male bias" as one of five "built-in biases" a better grounded, more scholarly Mormon history might correct (Arrington 1968: 56-65).1 Nor did he shrink from the contemporary implications of nineteenth-century stories. In the essay he contributed to our issue, he concluded, "The Mormon tradition of womanly independence and distinction should inspire a later generation of women who are seeking their rightful place in the world" (Arrington, "Damozels" 31).
Arrington's crisp summary of Ellis Shipp's achievements suggested that somewhere in the not-so-distant past Mormon women had managed to balance obligations that were about to tear our lives apart. Shipp, a mother of seven, had not only become a prominent physician, but a member of the General Boards of two church auxiliaries, and an intimate acquaintance of Susan B. Anthony and other nineteenth-century reformers ("Damozels" 30). Her story was a liberating but no less daunting version of the myth of the pioneer grandmother.
Perhaps that is why I found an essay submitted by another distinguished LDS historian even more appealing. I knew Juanita Brooks only by reputation, as a scholar who had risked her membership in the church to write Mountain Meadows Massacre, a book about the slaughter of a company of Missouri pioneers as they passed through southern Utah during the so-called Mormon war of 1857. The essay she submitted to our issue did not please Dialogue's editor. I think he would have been happy to hear about her struggle with censorship and social ostracism. What he wasn't prepared for was an account of her life as a mother and step-mother in a "complex-compound" family.
I was entranced by her homely descriptions of venison jerky, curdled tomato soup, and a good-natured, deer-hunting husband. Into her family chronicle she wove an account of her own early efforts at writing history. As president of the State Relief Society she helped needy women get work
copying diaries for the WPA, but she hid her own writing under the ironing, often writing late at night, her typewriter perched on the oven door.
She told of settling her restless baby one hot Utah night, sponging him off, rubbing him down, feeding him, and then looking for a place where he might be able to sleep.
I wheeled his crib out onto the front porch, but even there he couldn't get any breeze. I pushed him down the steps and out the short walk and parked him near the thick hedge along the sidewalk. He stretched out and immediately went to sleep.
Soon everyone else was abed and asleep. It was one of those times when my writing seemed to be going so well that I was almost drunk from my own wine. It is a pleasure like nothing else, and rarely felt.
By two a.m. I had finished, dead tired. I stripped, pulled on my nightgown, and rolled in, asleep almost before I hit the pillow. At six a.m., by signs which every nursing mother would easily know, it was time to feed the baby. I reached blindly for the crib. Horrors! He wasn't there!
"Where's the baby?" I said, jumping up.
"I don't know," said Will, rousing. "Where did you put him?"
"I don't know!" But once on my feet, I did know, and ran through the house to the hedge. He was sleeping peacefully as an angel, his little hands above his head. (Brooks 15-21)
Dialogue's editor sparred with us over that essay for months. Finally on October 28, 1971, he wrote to tell us that the last of the material for our issue had gone to press. "I am sure you will be pleased to know that it included Juanita Brooks . . . I am still not completely happy with [it] . . . but I am tired of hassling. . . . [It] is an incredibly bad piece of writing for someone of Juanita's ability, and my hesitation about including it was related more to a concern for her than a concern for Dialogue." He assured us that there had been "no bias, conscious or unconscious, against women. . . . While at times I apparently seemed like a male chauvinist to you, I assure you that no one could be more sympathetic to the cause of women's liberation than I am."2
Bob Rees was a fine editor and a true feminist. I have no doubt about his sympathy for our cause. I am also quite sure he had never had a nightmare about losing a baby.
The anthropologist Mark Leone has argued that Mormonism has no history. Historygenuine historyrequires a recognition of the distance between present and past. "Mormons assume everythingpast, present, and futureis a continuum, guided by one purpose; a plan unifying the universe in such a way that nothing is excluded" (Leone 207-208). Latter-day Saints weren't the first religious group in America to absorb the past into the present. Seventeenth-century Puritans found images or "types" of the Old Testament all around them. America became "Zion," Boston became a Biblical "city on a hill." Joseph Smith and his followers went even further in Biblicizing the American landscape. In the Book of Mormon Native Americans became literal descendents of the Old Testament Joseph; they even wrote in a language called "Reformed Egyptian." In 1838 Joseph Smith identified Adam's last dwelling place "at a place called Spring Hill, Daviess County, Missouri," (D & C 116). And in Utah the saints found a fresh water lake flowing into a salt sea via a river they named Jordan.
This startling compression of present and past, old world and new, is apparent in Joseph Smith's account of his vision of September 23, 1823. He was seventeen years old. He had just knelt in his bedroom to pray.
While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor. (Smith 50-51)
The Angel said that his name was "Moroni" and that there "was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent." This remarkable new world angel then proceeded to quote long passages from old world scriptures, reciting the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, the third chapter of Acts, and the second chapter of Joel. When the angel came to Malachi, he altered the words slightly: "And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers. . . ." According to the Doctrine & Covenants, Malachi's and Moroni's prophecy was fulfilled thirteen years later when Elijah appeared in the temple at Kirtland Ohio, bringing the "keys" or authority to perform vicarious ordinances for the dead (110: 13-16).
From the vantage point of secular history, all this seems incomprehensible. Angels in the nineteenth century? From a religious studies perspective, the story is not only comprehensible but familiar. As Jan Shipps has explained, nineteenth-century Mormons, like first-century Christians, lived in "sacred time." Suspended between an "unusable past and an uncertain future," they engaged in activities which allowed them to move "into the future by replicating the past" (Shipps 52,122). Shipp believes that the "Manifesto" of 1890 which officially ended polygyny, or "plural marriage", "also signaled the beginning of the end of the extraordinary situation wherein Latter-day Saints had lived their lives in sacred space and sacred time" (Shipps 125-126). Significantly, this period of transition was characterized by a renewed emphasis on temple building. As the church negotiated its passage into the twentieth century, the duties of genealogical research and temple work, "carried out in profane time, became occasions of returning periodically to sacred time through the medium of the ritual performance of sacred ordinances" (Shipps 128).3 The Genealogical Society of Utah organized in 1894 was the link between the ecstatic experiences of the first generation and the pale whisperings of my childhood.
As a child I watched my mother iron white clothing for periodic trips to the Idaho Falls Temple, but I did not hear her speak of revelations. She and Dad were doing temple work, something as practical and essential, or at least as ordinary and expected, as starching an apron or turning irrigation water onto the potatoes. I suspect that the true altars in our home were bookcases, one on either side of the rose-colored sofa, and the spindle-legged magazine rack, which opened like a tulip or a wine cup beside my father's chair. There had always been a bookish element in Mormonism. The Kirtland Temple where Elijah appeared in 1838 was dedicated as "a house of learning" as well as a "house of faith." As the visionary ardor of the first generation cooled into scripture, personal revelation became primarily a means of confirming doctrine. In Sugar City Ward, few genealogical sermons closed without at least one anecdote about "being led" to the right set of vital records by a departed ancestor. Such revelations led not to the desert but to the Post Office. I couldn't imagine anything more boring. If God wanted to communicate with his children, surely he could find a more imaginative way than a Stamped Self-Addressed Envelope.
For me, the temple had more to do with the living than the dead. It was the place where we would one day go with the person we loved to be "sealed for time and all eternity." Gael gave me an engagement ring on the grounds of the Salt Lake Temple in July of 1958. We were married there in September. I had fulfilled one of my two life goals. The other was to graduate from college. When I gave my valedictory speech at the University of Utah in 1960, I was four months pregnant.
Just before Christmas 1971, the women's issue of Dialogue arrived. A few months later, the editor wrote to tell us that several of the judges of the fourth annual prize competition had cited it for special recognition. "The whole was suffused with the religious culture of Mormonism, portrayed as a culture in tension between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (perhaps not the twenty-first)." The most fully developed personal voice in our issue was that of Jaroldeen Edwards, a mother of twelve. Aside from admitting that she sometimes served her family canned spaghetti, she had fulfilled the highest expectations of traditional Mormon womanhood. Her life, she wrote, was "filled with being" (9-13). Christine Durham's voice was not lyrical, but it was almost as clear. With two young children, she had chosen law school and was willing to defend her decision (35-39).
The rest of us were, as Grethe Peterson put it, "somewhere in between." Carolyn Person captured the frustrating irresolution of our discussions in an illustration she called, "The Find-The-Straight-&-Narrow-Path-Game, For Women Players Only." There were two paths, one for homemakers, another for career women. Both led to happiness. The difficulty was in choosing one and sticking with it. Stop signs labeled "Old Maidhood," "Pregnancy," "Miscarriage," "Widowhood," "Middle Age" littered both paths, making it impossible to skip happily past aphorisms like "Big Families are happiest" or "Be the best of whatever you are" (74,46).
My own essay hid behind humor. "It isn't easy these days to be a Mormon mother of four," I began.
In the university town where I live, fertility is tolerated but not encouraged. Every time I drive to the grocery store, bumper stickers remind me that Overpopulation Begins At Home, and I am admonished to Make Love, Not Babies. At church I have the opposite problem. . . . Open the Ensign and I am warned of the woeful consequences should I "wall up the path of life over which new spirits must cross to enter a mortal body." ("Woe Unto Them" 41-45)
In the age of The Pill, I was unable to confront my own fertility except as an example of a larger conflict between religious and secular authority. In a style somewhere between Erma Bombeck and Jonathan Swift, I offered my own "modest proposal." While there were obviously too many people in the world, there were not enough Mormons. "Will I have more children?" I asked. "I might. Yet right now four seems like a nice, independent numberjust twice to many for Zero Population Growth and only half enough to fill a row in Sacrament Meeting. All things considered, I think I can be quite comfortable just where I am, as long as Mormons keep having babies and the rest of the country stops."
History came to our rescue in dealing with the equally explosive conflict between "home and career." In a year when Relief Society lessons, General Conference talks, and Church News editorials routinely condemned working women, we plastered a quotation from Brigham Young across the shocking pink cover of our issue:
We believe that women are useful, not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, & raise babies, but they should stand behind the counter, study law or physic, or become good bookkeepers & be able to do the business in any counting house, and all this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large. In following these things they but answer the design of their creation. (Widstoe 216-217)
In time, we would discover the multiple ironies in that statement. After all, as my friend Mary Bradford likes to point out, a vacuum cleaner is useful. For the moment, however, it was enough to know that activities now condemned were once approved.
In the fall of 1971, I took a part-time teaching job at the University of New Hampshire and quit attending Wednesday morning Relief Society. I suppose I expected the sky to fall down. Instead, I was asked to teach the adult Gospel Doctrine class in my ward, a position typically assigned to confident males. Meanwhile, the meetings in Boston continued. In the spring of 1973, our group presented a series of lectures at the LDS Institute of Religion in Cambridge. While doing research at Harvard's Widener Library, Susan Kohler discovered a complete set of a nineteenth-century Mormon newspaper called The Woman's Exponent. Here indeed was a voice speaking to us from the dead. In the 1880s, with the approval of church authorities, these remarkable women were saying things in print that most of us had only begun to think. They were not only pro-suffrage, they believed in equal pay for equal work; they urged wives to speak up at home and Relief Society sisters to run for public office.
In July 1974, we launched our own quarterly newspaper, Exponent II, proclaiming it "the spiritual descendant of the Woman's Exponent, (1872-1914)." The lead article commented optimistically on the progress of the ERA. I contributed a review essay on the history of the women's suffrage movement. Short news stories reported on the founding of Mormon feminist groups in other parts of the country, noted the enrollment of a local sister at the Harvard Divinity School, and lauded the activities of another who served on her local school board. On the last page, under a recipe for dried bananas, we printed these lyrics from a nineteenth-century Utah Woman Suffrage Song Book: "'Equal Rights,' for small and great; /'Equal Rights,' what-e-er our state."
Although Claudia Bushman's editorial proclaimed our intention to stand "poised on the twin platforms of Mormonism and Feminism," our early issues struggled to keep that balance. Sometimes the most forthrightly feminist statements were those lifted from the pages of the original Exponent. Lula Green Richards' editorial for August 15, 1877, reprinted in our October 1974 issue, urged readers to "utterly repudiate the pernicious dogma that marriage and a practical life-work are incompatible," and M.A. Till's resounding essay of January 1880, reprinted in September 1976, shouted: "Away with such narrow-mindedness that says woman's voice must not be heard except at home." For me, there was a special poignancy in a comment from the January 15, 1899, Woman's Exponent, reprinted in Exponent II in June 1976:
Women are told by 'the lords of creation' to be domestic and submissive like their grandmothers in the past, but they need to be reminded there were women in the past. . . who rebelled against the injustice of the laws and conditions as their descendants do in the present day.
Turning our hearts to our nineteenth-century mothers, we redefined the controlling myths of our lives.
Early in 1977, I withdrew from the editorial board of the newspaper to concentrate on my graduate studies. I had enrolled in a doctoral program in American history in 1972, initially planning to concentrate on the nineteenth-century west. I was soon captured by early American history, a field that was not only more practical for a part-time student living in a small town in New Hampshire, but also refreshingly distant from the clanging controversies in my own life. It was easier to take a scholarly stance in relation to a society that predated both Mormonism and feminism as I knew it. I passed the qualifying exams in the spring of 1976, studying with a new baby daughter in my lap.
By fall, having relinquished most of my responsibilities with Exponent II, I was ready to plunge into the seventeenth century. But every morning for a week I woke at dawn with ideas for personal articles or essays. One day I opened my eyes with a full outline in my brain. I tried postponing the muse by jotting some notes in my journal, but before breakfast I was at my typewriter. The words came quickly. When the article was finished, I sent it to the Ensign, the adult magazine for the church. It was accepted and published in June 1978. I was not surprised by the ease of its acceptance for I felt that I had been true both to Mormon values and myself. This is how
I suppose every Mormon woman has measured herself at one time or another against "the pioneers." Am I as stalwart? As self-reliant? As devoted to the gospel? As willing to sacrifice?. . .
For me, such thoughts have a way of recurring at awkward moments. Perhaps my full pedigree of handcart-pushing, homesteading grandmothers is the cause, but I remember being wheeled into a delivery room on one occasion, surrounded by sterile sheets, rubber-gloved nurses, and the most sophsiticated of fetal-monitoring equipment, and saying to the doctor: "I never would have made a pioneer!"
Fortunately for my ego, he laughed and answered: "Of course you would have. You would have done all right in a field."
I am sure he was right. Given no other option, I could have given birth, as my own Grandmother Thatcher did, in a log cabin while recovering from smallpox. Heroism often consists in simply surviving under tough odds. Yet history books seldom record the pain, and even less frequently the petty complaints, quarrels, and insecurities that so often accompany great deeds. ("Pioneer" 54-55)
Following a brief vignette from a pioneer memoir and a few examples of the familiar struggles of contemporary Mormon life, I turned to what was for me a new concept discovered in preparing for my graduate exams.
We have usually thought of the "frontier" as an empty place beyond white settlement, a desert or prairie to be cultivated and civilized. But in recent years, scholars of Indian-white relations have suggested another definition. A frontier is not a geographical space but a social space, an environment in which two different cultures meet and interact.
If that was so, then a Mormon woman living in "a New Hampshire town of 10,000 people in which fewer than two dozen, including infants, are Latter-day Saints" was very much a pioneer. "Frontiers can be disordered and even chaotic places where men and women appear at their worst as well as at their best. Yet an essential quality of the first pioneers was optimism, an ability to see new possibilities in a strange and unsettling environment." When I wrote those words, I was conscious of pioneering on two frontiersas a mother of five attempting to begin an academic career and as a feminist trying to remain true to the faith of my progenitors. "A pioneer is not a woman who makes her own soap," I concluded. "She is one who takes up her burdens and walks toward the future."
Most academic historians have as little use for genealogy as for visions. We have been trained to keep the dead at a distance through our canons of objectivity. Poets might have muses, but historians have only footnotes. We earn our living disabusing other people of their myths and maintaining our distance from the filiopietistic impulses of family memoirs and local history. I was not a little dismayed, therefore, at the ease with which some readers associated my story with that of Martha Ballard, the eighteenth-century diarist who was the subject of my second book, A Midwife's Tale. Some people assumed that Martha Ballard was a lineal ancestor. Others asked if I was a midwife. The most alarming request came from This People, an unofficial LDS publication, which ran an article on my work. The art editor suggested I be photographed looking at my eighteenth-century double in a mirror.
Just to set the record straight, A Midwife's Tale is the product of eight years of hard work in the archives. It is academic scholarship, the fruit of my training in social history as well as two decades of reading, teaching, and writing in women's history. Still,I have to admit that my work has also been shaped by a complex and sometimes troubled relationship to my own religious heritage and by an epiphany in a broom closet. I feel better about the prophecies of Malachi than I once did, and I am no longer embarrassed when I am working in the archives and someone mistakes me for a genealogist. After all, in a darkened room, who can tell which researcher bending into the lighted cavern of a microfilm reader has been touched by Elijah's spirit?
1Arrington's earlier essay, "The Economic Role of Pioneer Mormon Women," Western Humanities Review, 9 (1955): 145-164, was a precocious effort to correct that bias.
2Letter from Robert Rees to Claudia Bushman and Laurel Ulrich, copy in my possession.
3Joseph Smith introduced the doctrine of vicarious baptism in the 1840s, building on Elijah's promise and on a cryptic passage in I Corinthians 15:29, "Else what they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all?"
Arrington, Leonard J. "Blessed Damozels: Women in Mormon History." Dialogue: A
Journal of Mormon Thought 6 (1971): 22-31.
---. "The Economic Role of Pioneer Mormon Women." Western Humanities Review 9 (1955): 145-164.
---. "The Search For Truth and Meaning in Mormon History." Dialogue 3 (1968): 56-65.
Arrington, Leonard J. and Davis Bitton. The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.
Brooks, Juanita. "'I Married A Family." Dialogue 6 (1971): 15-21.
Durham, Christine Meaders. "Having One's Cake and Eating It Too." Dialogue 6 (Summer 1971): 35-39.
Edwards, Jaroldeen Asplund. "Full House." Dialogue 6 (Summer 1971): 9-13.
Hymns of the Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985.
Johnson, Wesley G. "Editorial Preface," Dialogue 1 (Spring 1966): 5-6.
Leone, Mark P. Roots of Modern Mormonism. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1979.
Pearson, Carolyn. "The-Find-The-Straight-&-Narrow-Path-Game, For Women Players Only." Dialogue 6 (Summer 1971): 74, 46 [NOTE: the first page, 74, may perhaps also refer to Grethe Peterson's unmentioned contribution to the issue of Dialogue; the manuscript is unclear here]
Shipps, Jan. Mormonism: The Story of A New Religious Tradition. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1982.
Smith, Joseph. "Extracts From the History of Joseph Smith, The Prophet." Pearl of Great Price: A Selection from the Revelations, Translations, and Narrations of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1975.
Stegner, Wallace. The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. "A Pioneer Is Not A Woman Who Makes Her Own Soap." Ensign 8 (June 1978): 54-55.
---. "And Woe Unto Them That Are With Child In Those Days." Dialogue 6 (Summer 1971): 41-45.
Widstoe, John A, ed. Discourses of Brigham Young. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1966.