Even now, more than 100 years after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned polygamy, the practice is often still viewed as stereotypically Mormon. For Mormon women in particular, these outdated polygamous caricatures obscure a rich history and ignore the complicated place Mormon women have held in faith and politics from the nineteenth century to the present day. In 1870, women in Utah territory were granted the right to vote and freely exercised their enfranchisement until 1887, when the federal government disenfranchised them. (When Utah achieved statehood in 1896, the right was restored.) In the early twentieth century, Mormon women led projects of reform and modernization as did other Progressive Era Americans. For much of the twentieth century, female leaders raised funds and independently administered an increasingly global community of Sister Saints. In the era of modern feminism, Mormon women fought for and against the Equal Rights Amendment. In short, women in the LDS Church, like most American women, have a varied and vivid history that has faced sweeping changes over the last century.
Modern Mormon women—and their role in their faith’s religious life and politics—are the subject of a new book by Colleen McDannell, Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy. McDannell draws from her expertise in religious history to situate Latter-day Saint women within a larger story of American social change. McDannell is the Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies and Professor of History at the University of Utah. Her previous books include Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America and The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America.
Joseph Stuart interviewed McDannell in her office at the University of Utah. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
R&P: Why do you think it is important to have a history of modern Latter-day Saint women?
Colleen McDannell: There’s a continual fascination with Mormons, and that’s because of the nineteenth-century focus on polygamy. But the history of polygamy has drawn people away from the twentieth century or the twenty-first century. So, what we need to do is move our attention away from the frontier and focus on the more modern period—just like we also have to move our attention away from men’s history and look more at what women are doing to contribute to the larger religious community. Finally, because I am not a Latter-day Saint, it might be easier for me to deal with modern Mormonism because the twentieth century is a period of conflict. And since I’m not worried about whether or not my writing will demonstrate my faithfulness in the community, I can seriously look at what has motivated religious tensions.
R&P: Some people have portrayed Mormon women as pawns of a patriarchal religion. Do Mormon women see themselves as controlled by their leaders?
CM: When you talk about Mormon women as pawns, you dismiss Mormon women’s contributions to their own history and to the history of the larger church. It puts them in a box and labels them as not thoughtful or serious. This, of course, is a false conclusion about Mormon women, and my book works against such claims. Sister Saints illustrates how women responded to their religious situations in creative and thoughtful ways. Women have agency, and scholars are always trying to understand the limits and extent of that agency. How do institutions and even other women restrict women religiously? Sister Saints navigates through the various ways that women’s expression was limited as well as analyzing the religious structures that encourage their creativity and expressiveness.
R&P: Your second chapter addresses Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, Utah’s first female state senator. Could you tell us more about her interaction with religion, family, and politics?
CM: Martha Hughes Cannon is a rare example of a woman in Utah who was trained in the late 1870s at the University of Michigan in modern medicine. There were many nineteenth-century women who were healers, but she was unusual in that she went to a medical school that was designed for men. Then she returned to Utah to take up medical practice. Hughes decided to run for office in 1896, when Utah became a state and gave women the right to vote for a second time. Martha Hughes actually won in a Democratic primary against her husband and another important Mormon woman, Emmeline Wells.
R&P: Did she serve for a long time?
CM: Martha Hughes served in the state legislature for a few years and helped establish the Utah Department of Health, and she promoted other progressive legislation. But, eventually, she had to leave because she was a polygamist wife, and she got pregnant. Mormons were instructed not to enter into new polygamous relationships in 1890, but it was unclear what should happen to the existing polygamous families. Should men and women continue to cohabit? Martha Hughes at the age of forty-two had a baby by her sixty-five-year-old husband, Angus Cannon, who had had six wives. When her child was born, it was thought that she was breaking the law. So, she did not run for office again. She eventually left the state and moved to California, but she is buried in Salt Lake City.
R&P: Readers may be surprised to hear that many Mormon women supported and participated in Progressive Era policies and politics. How did they get involved in liberal politics less than a generation after the end of plural marriage?
CM: Utah women received the vote in 1870 for many reasons. Women wanted the political power to secure their religion and its practice of plural marriage. Anti-Mormons felt that if women had the vote, they would vote against polygamy, which points to the false idea that Mormon women were dupes of their religious leaders. Of course, Mormon women didn’t vote against polygamy.
Women had the vote until 1887, when the federal government took it away from them. Latter-day Saint women were accepted by the radical wing of the suffrage movement. Through their concern with suffrage, Mormon women became exposed to other Progressive Era causes, like the need for clean cities, childhood education, and safe labor conditions for all. Suffrage helped Mormon women connect with women across the country. In the early twentieth century, they were outward-looking. This all started when suffrage and polygamy came together.
R&P: There seems to be a large difference between Mormon women in the Progressive Era and the homemakers of the 1950s. What happened?
CM: Many Latter-day Saint women were involved in Progressive Era “politics.” Even if they weren’t involved specifically in pushing legislation, they were involved in civic activities. Women saw civic roles as being important, that they had a responsibility to make their cities and nation safe and clean places. After World War I and the Russian Revolution, the country in general became more frightened and more conservative. Native-born Americans worried about foreigners coming and hurting them, that Bolsheviks would align with unsuspecting Americans to change American family, economic, and religious life. Progressive reformers were accused of being radicals. In Utah, the male leadership of the Church also became more conservative, more inward-looking. In the early 1920s, you had this tension between more outward-looking Progressive women and more conservative, inward-looking male leaders.
R&P: But then there was the New Deal. Did that not reinforce the liberal perspective?
CM: When the Great Depression struck, economic disruption shook the country. Especially in Utah, people suffered immensely because many of them were farmers or in mining. The question was, “How do we help these people? What to do?” Male leaders looked to the past pioneer spirit, a spirit of independence and self-help. They said, “If we just have our people work harder and help each other, just like we did in the frontier days, we’ll be able to manage the Great Depression.” Latter-day Saint women, however, because they were much more connected with the national conversation about social reform, looked at this economic problem from a much wider perspective. They wanted to partner with the federal government and with other religious communities. Women in leadership positions tended to be much more open to the New Deal. The male church leaders, however, decided to reject the New Deal and to create their own welfare plan (although the people collected benefits from church and state). Men put themselves as the head of the welfare plan. Men took over the role of caring for the unemployed and the poor, which typically had been a female activity. One of the most important things the women of the church did, direct the care of the poor, was removed from their purview.
Then, in 1943, a very influential Relief Society president, who had pushed women to be more active civically and engaged with modern society, had a horrible thing happen to her. Her husband, who was an apostle, was excommunicated because he was having an affair. This influential woman leader was no longer able to direct the church as she had throughout the 1930s and 1940s. With her leaving, with the end of women’s involvement in welfare, and with a postwar national push towards domesticity, Latter-day Saint women came to focus exclusively on the home. From both male and female church leaders, they were told that just their family was important, and they shouldn’t worry about trying to make the nation a better place.
R&P: How did a shift from focusing on the nation to focusing on the home change Mormon religious life?
CM: Midcentury Mormonism saw the height of ward [local congregation] culture, which was organized and run by women. Men might have had a certain impact on creating ideas and leadership, but it was women who provided the labor. They hosted dances and parties for children. They put together roadshows where Latter-day Saints performed dramas and music. They organized and ran summer camps. They sold crafts to fundraise for church needs and the women’s organization, so you had seasonal bazaars. This gave women a social and cultural authority in the ward, but it also helped train them in leadership capabilities. It promoted their creativity. It created strong bonds between other women. Women also promoted standards of proper behavior, especially in terms of modesty. Women instilled Mormon ideals in their children, ideals that are now often seen as problematic. Many women have come to struggle against notions of femininity and appropriate sexuality, norms that comprised a major aspect of midcentury Mormonism.
R&P: How did the rise of women’s liberation and feminist movements shape Mormon women’s participation in the LDS Church in the 1970s?
CM: I read many women’s letters from the 1950s, and I could see that Latter-day Saint women struggled with the pressures of home and family. Their domestic worlds, oftentimes, were very unhappy, but they didn’t know how to change this. Women were just given one more domestic guidebook or one more piece of church advice so that they could become more efficient housekeepers. What the women’s liberation movement did was to give Mormon women tools to understand their situation more philosophically and to recognize structural problems. The women’s movement also emphasized that there were lots of different kinds of women. Feminist Mormon women argued that there were various ways of being feminine and faithful within the Church. Feminism encouraged Mormon women to look to the past and discover the stories of strong women who had families as well as public roles, who had perspectives on religious behavior different from that cultivated in postwar Mormonism.
R&P: What happened to the feminists of the 1970s?
CM: Perhaps the most important thing is that the word “feminism” became associated with unfaithful women. When church leaders decided to take a stand against the Equal Rights Amendment, women who disagreed were seen as religiously rebellious. One outspoken proponent, Sonia Johnson, was excommunicated. The significant writings of Mormon women scholars were ignored or rejected, and influential church leaders denounced feminists, intellectuals, and gay people. This caused great fear among many Mormon women who were trying to understand their positions in the church and society because they feared retaliation and isolation. Women intellectuals were marginalized and discouraged from going into professions like medicine or law—any field where a lot of education was demanded. Again, women were told only to focus on their home and family, even though feminist women historians were showing how in the past, Mormon women were civically engaged and had large families.
R&P: What are some of the differences in lived religious experiences and expectations between white American Mormons and international women in the contemporary LDS Church?
CM: Converts are very important in Mormonism. Converts provide a fresh spirit in the religion. They’re enthusiastic about its spiritual and communal characteristics. Converts are willing to sacrifice even their own families and friends in order to choose this religious path, which is, for many people, quite unusual. Converts don’t have a deep historical knowledge of the tradition or carry with them a set of Mormon cultural expectations developed in the intermountain West. This means that convert women have much more diverse understandings of both their religion as well as their position within their faith. We also have to keep in mind that the problems that affect Mormon women in the United States aren’t the same problems for those outside of the United States. In other parts of the world, Mormon standards of behavior are seen by women as progressive and liberating. A Mormon man is expected to understand his wife’s life and share in family labor. Men are supposed to create an environment that is supportive of women and children. For many women around the world, this expectation is much more important than women having a stronger a voice in leadership. You have to look at the local context to get a sense of what women think about Mormonism.