MIConversations #3—Kate Holbrook with Terryl Givens, “Extraordinary Women in Mormon History”
Maxwell Institute Conversations are special videocast episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, hosted by Terryl Givens and created in collaboration with Faith Matters Foundation.
In this episode Terryl Givens sits down with Kate Holbrook to talk about extraordinary women in Latter-day Saint history.
Kate Holbrook is Managing Historian of Women’s History at the LDS Church History Department and co-editor of At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women and the award-winning The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History. She also co-edited Women and Mormonism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives and Global Values 101: A Short Course. For her dissertation work on religion and food, she received the first Eccles Fellowship in Mormon Studies at the University of Utah. Her current projects include a history of the LDS young women organization and a monograph on LDS foodways.
BLAIR HODGES: Welcome to Maxwell Institute Conversations—special videocast episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, hosted by Terryl Givens and created in collaboration with Faith Matters Foundation.
In this episode, Terryl Givens is joined by Kate Holbrook, managing historian for women’s history for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Over the past several years she’s been working on some of the most fascinating projects about LDS history, including the books At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women, and The First Fifty Years of Relief Society. Holbrook says many Mormons have embraced this burst of insight into the history of women in the church.
KATE HOLBROOK: As people have read both The First Fifty Years of Relief Society and At the Pulpit, I’ve been a little surprised at how meaningful it’s been to women of my mother’s generation. They’d never pick up a volume of The Joseph Smith Papers or some other great church history book, but this they’ll stay up past midnight reading, so hungry for it, so hungry to hear about the experiences that feel more familiar and more relatable to them.
HODGES: It’s Terryl Givens speaking with Kate Holbrook of the LDS Church History department on this episode of Maxwell Institute Conversations.
TERRYL GIVENS: Hello, and welcome to another installment of Conversations with Terryl Givens, sponsored by the Faith Matters Foundation. This is a podcast series devoted to exploring the experience of lived Mormonism as a catalyst to the abundant life and to the public good. My guest today is Kate Holbrook. We’re delighted to have you with us for this next hour. Thank you for coming, Kate.
KATE HOLBROOK: So glad to be here.
GIVENS: I’d like to start off by asking a question that may strike some people as rather morbid, but it seems to me the best way to get to the heart of who you are, or how you may be remembered. That is if you were to overhear your obituary read in the following days what points would probably be made? What are the salient features of your life as they’d be remembered up to this point?
HOLBROOK: I’ve written some books in Mormon women’s history that I feel have been good contributions there. I think I’ll be remembered generally through favorite recipes that have come from me. I’ve decided that’s a maybe in some ways richer and more lasting visceral experience that people will have of my having been on this earth.
GIVENS: How wonderful. Wonderful. Can you think of anything that you would like to be remembered and noted for that maybe might have escaped public notice or even family notice up to this point?
HOLBROOK: Terryl! I think a difference between men and women is I think men tend to think about these things more than women do. This isn’t something that I—
GIVENS: Well that’s what Fiona tells me. I’m always looking to the future and the past and she says, “I’m too busy living in the now.”
HOLBROOK: And questions of legacy.
GIVENS: That’s a male thing. Okay. Well let’s go on to another question then. Let me ask you this. One of my favorite poems from William Wordsworth comes from “The Prelude.” He refers to “spots of time.” There are in our existence spots of time, he says, that have a particularly renovating virtue that are moments in which a window kind of opens into the future of our lives, and we take a particular course or direction as a result of some seminal experience or influence. If you had to think of a couple of those moments in your life that gave you direction or purpose or meaning, can you think of a couple of shaping moments you could share?
HOLBROOK: One, I was four years old. My great-grandpa bought some land in the Uintas and my grandfather spent his summers growing up on that land and then just before I was born he built a house that I share with my cousins. One night he and I were the only two at the cabin and his back went out and he was in excruciating pain and he waited just until the sun came up and he dragged himself out into the hall and he called for me and he said, “You need to go get your aunt.” I was a very imaginative, very imaginative child, so to go through the woods about the length of a block to get my great-aunt to help him was terrifying to me.
GIVENS: And you were four years old?
HOLBROOK: I was four. I remember feeling quite loved. I think he even told me to take a jacket, in all his impaired condition. I ran and the whole time I prayed and I ran so fast, as fast as my little legs could go, and prayed, and then reached my great-aunt, his sister. Then everything was okay. They were taking care of me, people were dispatched to take care of him. I think as scary as that moment was for me, it gave me a real sense that I can do things that are scary, that God will be by my side. No kidnappers or bears or lions came out of the woods, which i`s what I was afraid of. And that I can do things on my own. That came out of that experience.
GIVENS: So do you see the end of that kind of trajectory as related to where you are now? I should have introduced you this way at the very beginning, but your title is actually “Managing Historian of Women’s History” at the Church Historical Department?
HOLBROOK: That background, I was an only child, my grandfather died not long afterward, I ended up growing up with my mother and grandmother in Provo, Utah. An only child and somebody without a father and a grandfather was unusual there. Wherever I’ve been I’ve been a little bit unusual. So at divinity school, I was not the only Latter-day Saint to attend Harvard Divinity School, but I was still unusual. I was accustomed to being unusual. So it felt comfortable to me. It felt like something I could do.
I’ve learned to span different worlds and have my feet in different social spaces, which I think comes in really handy in my current job where I’m straddling the institutional church and the world in priorities there, and the academic world of history and religious studies, and the priorities there.
GIVENS: Right. So your background was pretty firmly entrenched in the Latter-day Saint tradition, was it?
HOLBROOK: Yes. On both sides. Back to Parley P. Pratt, whom you know.
GIVENS: Yeah. I spent some time with him.
HOLBROOK: And other founders.
GIVENS: Good. So at what point did you consider yourself to be kind of authentically Mormon in your own right? Does that make sense?
HOLBROOK: Yeah. I think it was actually that moment.
GIVENS: Going back that far?
HOLBROOK: It was important. I know everybody has a different approach to faith and a different journey with faith. In my life faith was, it was a gift. I knew there was a Father in Heaven that was listening to those prayers as I ran along that woodland path.
GIVENS: So you haven’t been struggling with the faith challenges that seem so endemic in our culture today?
HOLBROOK: No. Also growing up with a single mother at a time where it was hard to be a divorced woman in the church, it was hard to attend church on Fast Sunday when people would say how grateful they were for their families and their supportive spouses, and my mother would acutely feel the loss that she didn’t have those things, helped me to be attuned to the fact that as a people and as a church culture we’re growing and maturing and learning. It’s okay to notice things that aren’t always working ideally.
GIVENS: Did she feel supported by the wards that you were a part of?
HOLBROOK: It depended on who the bishop was, and who the Relief Society president was, and just how people treated her. It also depends on time. I think that’s true of everybody. When there’s a change I think it takes five years to really settle in to a new congregation.
GIVENS: Do you think in the course of your life as you’ve lived it so far, have you seen progress, improvement, in our sensitivity to those who are not a part of conventional families, as we’re used to defining them?
HOLBROOK: I have. Even just over the pulpit, in General Conferences when a little bit is said, we know that not everybody’s family looks like this, or we can define family in different ways. But that’s more than happened when I was growing up. I still think there’s room for us to grow.
GIVENS: Right. Good. Well, Kate, you’re a phenomenal historian. You’ve done some tremendously important work that I think many, many people in the church are familiar with and have appreciated. The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, you were one of the editors of that massive volume. The kind of female journal of discourses, called At the Pulpit. So can you talk a little bit about what set you on that particular path? When did you first feel a flowering of your interest in history, and women’s history in particular?
HOLBROOK: I attended BYU as an English major and a Russian major during the 1990s. So what I learned being there during the ’90s is that there’s something dangerous about studying women’s history, or women’s theology. I decided I wouldn’t do it.
GIVENS: So explain that.
HOLBROOK: I didn’t want to be excommunicated. I really valued my membership in the church; I still do.
GIVENS: So what period of time was this? Just for those who don’t remember?
HOLBROOK: So I was there ’90-’94. Cecilia Konchar Farr left BYU actually just after I was there.
GIVENS: And the September sixth was in, what year was that? ’93?
HOLBROOK: I think so. I was a missionary while it happened. So I was gone.
GIVENS: But you got a little gun-shy.
HOLBROOK: But I got a little sense of it, yeah. I went to Harvard Divinity School and studied world religion, and then I decided to go to Boston University and study religion and literature. But always I kept, even the classes I took, ostensibly I was studying world religions, but I kept taking classes on women in international development. It was always this, what’s the world like for women? What’s religious experience like for women? How do I understand that better? So finally when it came time to choose a dissertation topic I thought, if I’m gonna write this thing I’m gonna write about something I love. My abiding intellectual interests are women, religion, and food. So I figured out a way to do that.
GIVENS: What was your dissertation titled?
HOLBROOK: Radical Food: Latter-day Saint and Nation of Islam Culinary Ideologies.
GIVENS: Can you talk to us a little bit about how we got to where we are today in terms of the place of women’s history and women’s history initiatives in the Church Historical Department? When did that turn towards women’s history occur? Can you point to a particular moment or era when that was noticeable?
HOLBROOK: I don’t want to leave out any names. There were a few women who carried on in what had made me frightened and think I don’t want to study Mormon women’s history, they just carried on, quietly doing work. Cherry Silver is one that maybe people haven’t heard of but has been a tremendous support and helped to keep other people going and doing this work. She’s been working on Emmeline Wells’ diaries for a couple of decades and is finishing that up soon.
Then Jill Mulvay Derr, we know Carol Cornwall Madsen, we know Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, and those women were mentored as well by Leonard Arrington. So he was interested himself in Mormon women’s history and he looked for other people with a similar interest that he could encourage. At the same time women in Boston who formed the Exponent II group were also starting to discover the riches of Mormon women’s history. They did communicate, but there were these two satellites of people starting to think about these things and research these things and discover.
GIVENS: Well you talk about the church, if not resistance to, at least less than a welcoming environment that was provided for some of the women’s history initiatives early on, yet now we see that the church has kind of gone full-throttle in sponsoring and encouraging these kinds of developments. What changed, do you think?
HOLBROOK: I think there isn’t a trajectory like this [straight line]. It’s been more like this [waving motion]. These women and Arrington made a really terrific foundation. Then when I moved to Utah it was around the time I was writing my dissertation prospectus, so I started a writing group and Jill Mulvay Derr was in the writing group. One day she came to writing group and she said, “I’m going to retire and in order to replace me they have agreed to replace me with somebody who will specifically do women’s history, instead of just replacing me with another historian so that this women’s history focus won’t be lost.”
GIVENS: So are you the first hire designated as a women’s historian?
HOLBROOK: Yeah. So I applied for the job. I just thought oh, there’s my destiny, and applied for the job.
GIVENS: How long ago was that?
HOLBROOK: Six years ago.
GIVENS: Are there other women who have been hired to exclusively do, or to focus on women’s history?
HOLBROOK: Yes. So Jenny Reeder works on our web team and she focuses on women’s history in that capacity. Lisa Tait is on the women’s history team. She and I are working on a history of the Young Women organization right now together.
GIVENS: I want to talk to you a little bit about something that you said in remarks that you gave at the commemorative symposium for Richard Bushman where you talked about stories and how they matter. One thing in particular that you referenced in that talk was the idea that we ourselves are in some ways saved by our dead. We always think of the reciprocal relationship, that we have to save our dead. But you reversed that equation. Can you talk a little bit about what you meant by that?
HOLBROOK: It doesn’t make sense to me that the only reason that Latter-day Saints are such assiduous record keepers is so that we can do temple work for the dead. It’s important, but it doesn’t seem to me to be anything near the complete picture. But those records that the dead have left behind, they have the real power to save us, to help us be more resilient, to give us vision, to give us hope. You see people who really are interested in family history, people who may have spent their careers working for ZCMI or something not related to history, but when they start doing family history they discover this absolute passion and this sense of being led in small everyday ways by the hand of God. So that’s also my experience, working in my office, studying church history, is this real thinning of the world between the living and the dead.
GIVENS: The veil. I’m reminded of a wonderful passage that comes from Horace, almost two thousand years ago. He said, “Many heroes there were before Agamemnon, they are all unweepable, and consigned to the long night of oblivion because they had no sacred bards.” So there’s this sense that in many ways there’s a sacred task related to the recuperation of and preservation of in many cases the simple, unremarkable lives by which we have always been surrounded. Have you felt some of that? Have you felt that it’s not just a professional calling, but there’s a kind of sacred vocational calling you feel as well?
HOLBROOK: Absolutely. I feel it when I speak about the books that I’ve worked on. One thing to mention is that I think it’s not just that unremarkable lives have not been studied, I think when it’s women’s lives, remarkable lives have also not been studied.
GIVENS: Good. Good correction.
HOLBROOK: To begin this process of preserving and telling the stories we do look at the everyday lives, but we also have focused on women who were really well-known while they lived, made tremendous contributions to both the institution of the church and the thinking and believing, the theology of the church. We want to make sure people see their contributions as well.
GIVENS: In terms of our institutional support and encouragement for balancing scales and bringing the stories of women up to a par with those of men, are we at a good place yet? Is there more to be done?
HOLBROOK: There’s a lot more to be done. Our understanding of church history really changes when we look more carefully at what women leaders and everyday women were doing. We’re working in the history department on that. We’re working, thinking how to put a few more women’s experiences even into The Joseph Smith Papers, which are so male-centric. This is a church about wholeness, it really is, and cooperation between different kinds of people. In our history we’ve neglected—
GIVENS: Now have you been involved at all with the new church history project that’s been announced?
HOLBROOK: No. I got to read a draft here and there of different things, but—
GIVENS: And do you get the sense that there’s more weaving of women’s stories into that narrative?
HOLBROOK: From what I’ve read, yes. I know there was certainly an intention, a concerted effort to bring women’s stories in. It’s difficult. If that’s not the way you’re used to writing history and if that’s not the way other stories have been written, then it’s hard. That’s another reason the stories are neglected, because they’re harder to find. It’s a little bit trickier to figure out what to do with them. You have to expand the way you think about what your task is as a historian.
GIVENS: Right. Could we segue now to talk a little about where your personal experience as a woman of faith and the institutional theology of women intersect? Tell me are you happy with your status as a woman in the restored church? [Long pause] That was a pregnant pause.
HOLBROOK: That’s a big question. I am happy with my status as a woman in the restored church. I think the church is learning and making an effort to figure out how better to care for its female members, and not just female members, there are different kinds of members that we need to think how to better nourish.
GIVENS: Let’s talk about a couple of forms of discontent as they exist. There are some women that find the legacy of polygamy very painful and the effective continuation of that practice through temple work deeply hurtful and hard to reconcile. There are women that are unhappy with the male priesthood and church administration by males and the paucity of forums and avenues for women’s voices to be heard. How have you negotiated those kinds of challenges and remain true and relatively happy as a member?
HOLBROOK: In general I think this thing, meaning the church, that has brought so much meaning and beauty to my life that calls me to be concerned about those outside my immediate circle and that has facilitated a relationship with my Father in Heaven and with my Savior in remarkable ways, I would never give that up just because there was one concern, that was a real concern. If you weigh those I think I’m not going to give all of those away just because of one concern.
But I don’t want to downplay. I know how painful those concerns can be for people and I don’t want to be dismissive of that. I have a lot of compassion for that. I’m not sure why I haven’t felt in my own life that they needed to derail or take more of my attention. I think study helps. I think it was a great help to spend a couple of years studying other religious traditions and to see there’s not a way of worshipping out there that’s really fantastic for women. What we have as Mormon women in our theology, in our ideology of Heavenly Parents, in all of the responsibilities that are given to women in having an unmediated relationship to God through the Holy Ghost, these are extraordinary for women.
I don’t want us, in thinking about how to improve, I don’t want us to lose sight of aspects of this church that are so good for women and for men. Down to learning to give a talk when you’re in primary. Down to very practical matters. There’s lofty theological matters, and there are these everyday things you learn growing up in this church that are a great gift.
I think that heaven is, from what I feel I know about God and about Jesus, and I don’t know that much about Heavenly Mother but I have a little sense, there’s love, there’s beauty, and there’s mercy there. So I’m not personally as concerned with what marital relationships will look like in the afterlife because those beings are overseeing it, so it seems to me it will be good. It seems to me we’re finite creatures who—
GIVENS: Sometimes that has to be enough.
HOLBROOK: There’s a lot beyond what we can imagine. Living in this fallen world among fallen people as we do.
GIVENS: Let me ask you a question about the history of the Relief Society. I’ll explain why I’m asking the question, why I’m asking it the way I am. My question is whether your immersion in the history of the LDS Relief Society has been equal parts painful and inspiring. What I mean by that is the more one recovers the original context and setting of the Relief Society, and Joseph’s original statements at the time of the organization of the Relief Society, the more it seems apparent that he envisioned Relief Society in terms of a more collaborative relationship with the male priesthood. It certainly had a greater degree of autonomy and a greater abundance of spiritual gifts and authority to even administer ordinances of healing and kindred things.
So there’s certainly a sense of loss that I think one experiences immersed in that past, but there’s also, it would seem to me, a kind of sense of jubilation when one recognizes that the greatness and intrepidity and the proactive nature of the women leaders that you saw emerging at that time in history and the kind of intellectual strength, their participation in national foray. We just heard a paper delivered last week at a symposium talking about the women’s peace movement that was inaugurated by LDS women at the time of World War I. Some of the writings in the Women’s Exponent were just incredible. I mean, they’re articulate, they’re impassioned, they’re brilliant. So how do you balance kind of those two experiences of becoming more familiar with the past?
HOLBROOK: What you have just described explains why a lot of our historians have focused on nineteenth century, early twentieth century Mormon women’s history. The downside of that is that we aren’t as aware of the fantastic thinking and energy and these kinds of contributions of women in the twentieth century. They are still there.
But I don’t want to say that there isn’t a difference between a time when a women was able to say “I have this terrific idea,” she’s, say, the General Relief Society President and she goes and she talks with the president of the church about it. That’s certainly different than now when she goes and talks to somebody in the Presiding Bishopric and it has to go through several levels to even get to the president. So there is a loss and there’s a difference. So then instead of going with the culture we’re going against the culture, but now the culture’s over here, and we’re over here.
GIVENS: Right. I want to run another idea by you. You’re obviously much more versed in women’s history in the church than I am, but this is an impression that I had as I was looking at the history of polygamy and its demise in the late nineteenth century. Initially all of the church’s apologists and defenders of polygamy are the men, beginning especially in 1852 with Orson Pratt announcing it and then he writes extensively in The Seer justifying it. Generally it’s justified on the grounds of raising up seed, it being a higher law, and then there comes a point where national opposition reaches a kind of fever pitch that the men kind of turn the work over to the women of defending the practice.
Tell me if I’m wrong, but it seemed to me that once the women get the microphone they speak a very different language about plural marriage and they’re no longer celebrating it as this great higher law and its utility as a way of raising up, proliferating posterity, it’s an Abrahamic test. Some of them are quite outspoken about saying Abrahamic tests aren’t something that we hope will be eternally perpetuated. By definition it’s a furnace that we go through. So it seems to me a wonderful moment.
It kind of reminds one of the French revolution where you wouldn’t have had a revolution if the king hadn’t actually convened the estates together and once you give them the microphone then you can’t control the discourse. Is there something similar that happened there? Did it kind of unleash a certain kind of power and energy when women were actually given their own voice in this issue?
HOLBROOK: You know, I would just change… they weren’t given their own voice. They came up with the idea to have these meetings.
GIVENS: So it wasn’t delegated. They rose up and took it.
HOLBROOK: It wasn’t delegated. They said we want to have this mass indignation meeting. We are going to do this. Then at these meetings they spoke from the heart about how they understood plural marriage and why it mattered to them, and why they should be able to live according to the dictates of their conscience. Now I would like to go back and study this. I don’t see quite as many differences as you’ve just suggested, there’s some between the way they described it and the way men described it, but they were also used to hearing the way men were describing it so I think that does come through still in their discourses.
I don’t see them wishing for the end when they’re defending it, as maybe the Abrahamic explanation suggests. There was a lot of real mourning with the manifesto and the follow-up to the manifesto as they heard that this principle that they’d been sacrificing for that was central to how they understood their faith community was no longer going to be practiced. There were mixed, of course, reactions, but that included real mourning about no longer participating in plural marriage. So for some of them, some of them really loved at least the ideal of it.
GIVENS: Now you have three daughters.
GIVENS: How do you think their future in the church will be different than your experience as a woman? How do you hope it will be?
HOLBROOK: I think we’re already more sensitive and will be increasingly more sensitive to creating… it’s not only more spaces for women, it’s more visibility to the contributions women are already making. I hope that there will be more women on governing counsels as they get older, that’s in my mind the next frontier. In my research I see that the collaboration during the era of MIA, so the Young Men and the Young Women, was a real time when male leaders and female leaders were getting together and working together and solving things together. The presidents of the different organizations took turns conducting and presiding at the meetings, so it wasn’t even always the priesthood leader who was conducting the meeting. It would be good for us to look back at that and see what we can learn from that time.
My daughters, I remember when somebody was being confirmed in sacrament meeting and my youngest who was three stood up on the bench during the prayer and said, “How come there are no girls in there?”
GIVENS: I was just going to ask that question. I was going to ask are your daughters asking any difficult questions yet?
HOLBROOK: I shushed her then, because it was in the middle of an ordinance, but we don’t try to create the questions for them; we wanted them to have space to see the beauty and all the things that are functioning really well without us taking something that we think is complicated and bringing it to them on a platter when they’re maybe too young to deal with it. As soon as they have a question, and it doesn’t matter how old they are when they have a question, we treat them a little bit like an adult. We say this is how we understand it, this is how other people explain it and understand it, does either of these make sense to you? Does neither of them make sense to you?
My own experience with Mormon history is that there’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s a history of people working hard to find God that I find tremendously inspiring, even when they screw up, there’s still so much to learn from that. I hope my children don’t feel that there’s anything out there, including people of other faiths or people of no faith, there’s nothing out there to be afraid of. There are just things to try to gently understand and ask questions about and live with. And ask. That’s the theme for young people this year, has been ask. What a terrific thing.
GIVENS: It seems to me that we have gone through a cultural shift more profound than some of us recognize that I think was typified by Elder Ballard’s talk that he gave to the CES folks a few years ago when he said that the time is passed when it was appropriate to answer a question with a testimony, and that now we have to dignify the question by giving it a real answer. If we don’t know, then we need to find somebody who can. Did that hearten you to hear that there has been a kind of officially proclaimed space now in the church for Mormon historians to serve an important spiritual function, which is to sure the foundations of faith by providing more cogent answers to some of those questions that people are asking.
HOLBROOK: And in a more open process. Like we say this is our best effort to find an answer to this, and we feel it’s complete or it’s incomplete, it’s our best effort, we’ll continue to work on this, we’ll continue to try to find what we can. We’re not worried about it. Elder Ballard is also the one that since, at least the ’90s, has been talking about counsels. That man is—
GIVENS: His name is well-loved in your circle.
HOLBROOK: Yes. Had a grand vision about many things for a long time. It’s also important that the Gospel Doctrine manual, the introduction now, remember when you were only supposed to teach from the manual? And now it says in the manual the church has been preparing a lot of extra resources to help us understand the gospel. There are links throughout the lessons online that link to what the history department is producing. At the Pulpit, the collection of women’s discourses—
GIVENS: Is that one of the sources?
HOLBROOK: It’s being translated into Spanish and Portuguese now, which is requisite for it to be one of the sources, and then it will be part of the Gospel Library app. We’re very excited about that because we know that a lot of people are well-intentioned and want to include more women’s stories and quote more women but people get busy, they get overwhelmed, so they go with what’s easy and with what’s familiar. Now that book can be easy and familiar and right there on your phone or your iPad or whatever it is you use.
GIVENS: It’s hard to see the historical landscape when we’re down in the valley. We often like to think that we’re part of a historic moment. Do you think twenty or fifty years from now the period that you’re living through is going to be deemed a period of particular importance in terms of transition or paradigm shifts from your perspective of what you’ve experienced from the inside?
HOLBROOK: There certainly have been shifts just in the past six years while I’ve been in my job, shifts that are important to me like women being on the priesthood and temple and missionary committees, except for the Quorum of the Twelve the highest committees of the church. Women leader’s pictures being in the center of the Ensign after the Conference issue. Some of these things I think have been very important.
On the other hand as I look at church history there are times when a lot of more appreciation of women and their contributions and more independence to women, or more collaboration of women and men working together has happened. Then there are other times when that—
GIVENS: So you’re telling me that you don’t have this optimistic view of history? It’s not this continuous—
HOLBROOK: I have an optimistic view, a very optimistic and hopeful view, but I would like to think that this time won’t be seen as too remarkable because so many things will happen in the future that they’ll think we were still pretty backward here.
GIVENS: Let me ask you a little bit about discipleship. This particular session is one of a series that we’re doing called “The Ways of Discipleship.” The question I have, we joked a little bit at the beginning about the fact that there are male ways and female ways of thinking about different things and experiencing life perhaps. How is discipleship gendered? That’s a very vague general question maybe, but could you talk a little bit about that and how your immersion in a sea of women’s voices has conditioned, shaped, or modulated your own discipleship, your ways of relating to God and living your faith? Has it had a tangible effect?
HOLBROOK: That’s a terrific question. We both know that when you make a generalization it’s by definition not true because there will always be exceptions to the generalization. So I just want to be clear that I’m aware of that. But it does seem to me very important that there are voices out there to which you feel a kinship. We have our favorite members of the Quorum of the Twelve that when they speak it feels like it particularly resonates with us. With male leaders there are also different ways of seeing the gospel that women leaders have that I think would also resonate with different male church members, but really resonate with female church members who just have that femaleness in common, along a spectrum, but they have it in common.
I’ve found as people have read both The First Fifty Years of Relief Society and At the Pulpit I’ve been a little surprised at how meaningful it’s been to women of my mother’s generation. I love the books. But I didn’t realize how somebody who doesn’t usually read, you know, they’d never pick up a volume of The Joseph Smith Papers or some other great church history book, but this they’ll stay up past midnight reading, so hungry for it, so hungry to hear about the experiences that feel more familiar and more relatable to them.
GIVENS: I think you’ve quoted elsewhere the famous passage, or pretend you did if you didn’t, from the movie Shadowlands where C. S. Lewis is depicted as saying, “We read to know that we are not alone.” I know that in my devotional life, and in that of my wife Fiona, for both of us the idea of the invisible church looms large. It’s huge for us. This belief that there is a community of those who have loved God in every age and have borne eloquent testimony with words or with their lives to their discipleship and we feel connected to them often when we come across their writings and their testimonies and their words. It seems that what you are doing is you are in many ways doubling the repertoire of resources available to find those kindred voices. I just want to say I think that’s a very beautiful thing. A very beautiful contribution that you’re making.
HOLBROOK: Thank you.
GIVENS: Any other reflections on the unique challenges that women find to be disciples in the modern church?
HOLBROOK: This is a time in the world, well not the whole world, the western world, when if you’re a particularly ambitious person, woman, there are places to go out and realize your ambition. In the nineteenth century, church was the way that an ambitious woman could really find a cause she believed in and make the most of it. Now, yes, create what you can and want to at church, and I hope people do. But there are also all of these opportunities that are still spirit-driven, that are still related to the cause of Jesus, but you might be realizing them through your law practice or as a teacher or a banker, that’s less familiar to me, but to help bring greater economic or educational resources to people in less developed countries. In every field there’s a way to be a real disciple.
GIVENS: Have we arrived at a point, do you think, in church culture where women like yourself can feel welcomed into any environment where they want to make their contribution?
HOLBROOK: In some ways I’m the right person to ask and sometimes I’m not, because maybe because I’m an optimist I feel I’ve been really… the bishops I’ve had in my life have just been really loving, wonderful people. They’ve even created positions in the ward to try to figure out more ways for women to participate. I was a, not an executive secretary, but kept the appointments and things for one bishop. In one I was the head of the liturgy committee, so I would choose, in consultation with the bishopric, who would be speaking at church and what they would speak about.
HOLBROOK: Just innovative thinkers. In our Salt Lake City ward right now I feel that people are just full of love and acceptance for whatever’s on my mind and even whatever’s on my husband’s mind, which tends to be a little more dramatic.
GIVENS: So you’ve had a good experience as a professional historian in the church.
HOLBROOK: Really good. I didn’t change my last name when I was married and for some people that’s foreign but they certainly… I always felt a lot of acceptance and I know that’s not the case for everyone.
GIVENS: I think sometimes that’s the problem, and sometimes I think the problem is that my children I think felt that they were caught in that moment of paradigm shift a little bit. Maybe it had already passed and they didn’t recognize it. I have three daughters as well. I know that some of them were a little anxious about well, it’s as if we suddenly have these options that weren’t here before, and I can be a mother and pursue a PhD and be a professional. So in some cases there can be a burden of freedom that you’re suddenly exposed to, whereas before there was a kind of more limited set of options available, or expected of you. So it’s a great moment, but I think it can be a little bit disconcerting too. Would you agree?
HOLBROOK: Yes. And it’s disconcerting for women outside of the church too. We were resident tutors, which is a fancy name for dorm parents, at Harvard College for five years. I’d hear female students studying there, which I think that’s why I mentioned the place, it matters, saying “I think I’m not going to work after I have children.” Because maybe they’d had mothers who had worked and maybe they… we’re still working this out. As a society we work too much. My own view is we need to, everybody work a little less as a society and spend a little more time with our children. It’s something that I think everybody is grappling with and it’s unclear how to make it work.
It’s also unclear sometimes how to really keep supporting those women who decide full-time parenting is what they want. The contributions they make to their communities, I see this. I have a full-time job and I don’t sign up for extra PTA responsibilities, I still try to cook, you try to find how you can contribute to your neighborhood in your immediate community, but I don’t do half what the women who don’t have jobs do. And then to have them feel like second-class citizens because they don’t get to write books and have people think they’re cool because they write books. It’s unfair.
GIVENS: So what advice do you have for young women, or people in general, who would love to pursue the kind of life you’re pursuing professionally? What do you think? You must be asked that from time to time, right? How do I get to do what you’re doing?
HOLBROOK: Yeah. Just like with anything, I worked with a woman, Swanee Hunt. She inherited billions of dollars from the oil industry and she was Clinton’s secretary to Austria when war was breaking out in the Balkans. She said, “Whatever you plan, it’s fine if you want to be a planner. It’s not where you’re going to end up.” That’s true for men as well as for women.
My own life I’ve done what felt right and what I wanted to do. I think it’s good to think about what you want. Also in my own life that’s the way the spirit helps communicate with me. What do I want? What do I feel excited about? Then at the place you are, the time you’re there, you pursue that. You try to make the most of it. When you’re in a place where you don’t know what you want and it’s not clear how to get out, know that’s not forever. I really think asking the question “What can I contribute now where I am?” is such a much more helpful question than one that’s a little more focused on self.
GIVENS: Can you think of a moment when you had a deeply moving or compelling confirmation that you had made the right choice to be making the contribution where you are?
HOLBROOK: I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I went to divinity school because when you’re there you can take courses all over the university. Then one of my professors invited me to teach with him, so for two years we created and taught these really popular courses. I was having miscarriages, so I thought, “Well I guess I’ll get a PhD.” It was when I was accepted to my PhD program that I finally got pregnant. That was how God was maybe working with me to get me to do this thing that otherwise—
GIVENS: It was a kind of convergence of circumstances.
HOLBROOK: Maybe I was a little reluctant in my head. I was alive, I was a teen when President Benson gave his “To the Mothers in the Zion” speech and it made a big impression. It took a while for me to see through it. But when I was offered my current job and accepted it it felt so clear to me that this was the right thing. I think I needed that clarity because I worried that it was a full-time job, and I tried to ask whether we could make it a part-time job. The first two weeks of that job I felt my soul singing. Not because of the work necessarily, because when you’re new the work isn’t quite as exciting, but just that I felt like I was where God needed me to be, and I was trying to do what he needed me to do.
GIVENS: A few last questions. Do you have a heroine? Or am I supposed to say hero? Is that non-gendered?
HOLBROOK: You are supposed to say hero, yes.
GIVENS: Who of all the historical personages you’ve encountered do you most admire or love?
HOLBROOK: It’s a very fun question. There are so many. One is still alive. I keep changing in my head who I’ll talk about. One is still alive and well, Ardeth Kapp. She was on the Youth Correlation Committee during the 1960s when they were figuring out what correlation would be and what it would mean and how it would radically change the structure of the church. Then she was in a presidency for the Young Women, and then she was not. She worked as a consultant for a few years and then she was made president. So she had this vast experience with the organization and working with the institutional church and consulting and this business experience, that then she brought to be Young Women General President.
She felt during the first weeks that she was president revelation just pouring down; inspiration pouring down. She had three different, this notebook for this kind, this for revelation that came while she was studying her scriptures, and this for this other kind of just to record it all. She was a fantastic record keeper and she donated her materials to the Church History Library. But she had to work really carefully to get this vision to happen because on the heels of correlation, which really emphasized using the priesthood to organize everything, it was hard to get these things she felt God had made her a steward over, to have happen. So she was tenacious, she didn’t waver in faith in her relationship with God, and she also didn’t give up just when things became hard. Almost all of her innovations were hard to make happen, but she kept at it.
She even bought a fancy technological machine that was something like a VCR that would also show slides and they bought it and figured out how to use it through prayer. They couldn’t figure it out; they prayed, and then when she’d run into somebody in the lunchroom or in the garage who was a decision maker she’d say, “Oh, we have this new piece of equipment. You should come and see.” And then in demonstrating the piece of equipment it was loaded with all of the materials that they were trying to achieve for the Young Women program. Then when they’d have their chance to present at a meeting of decision makers, some of these men were already familiar with all of this, so they really advocated for it and it happened. I don’t think it’s that bad now. But this really faithful woman and this really connected woman to God, who was also forgiving and patient with the circumstances that she was in, and she still made things happen. I just think she’s fantastic.
GIVENS: Great. Well is there anything you haven’t said that you’d like to about what you think the church could be doing better?
HOLBROOK: I think church members, as I’ve studied correlation just recently my head’s really been in this, and really one of the reasons for emphasizing priesthood was that they didn’t feel priesthood holders were realizing their potential. It was about getting men to think of home teaching as a sacred contribution, as something that could change the lives of the people around them. So I think when, I don’t know how to do this to members, but to help all of us see there’s such an opportunity here to connect with God and make the world more beautiful in the way that we, our individual selves, are specially wired to do. Our lives will be so rich when we’re able to do that. I wish we could light that fire a little more.
Then with women, if the Relief Society, the women’s quorum they used to call it, if the women’s quorum you’re in isn’t accomplishing the things you wish it were, can you find a way, can you start a little group within it? Can you talk with the leaders in it? When the answers are no then what’s the next question? Can you just start something independent of it?
GIVENS: Persistence seems to be a theme I’m hearing with you, Kate.
HOLBROOK: Yeah. Whether you’re doing it through your Relief Society or through your primary or just completely on the side in your neighborhood or with friends or colleagues, you are still a member of that quorum. You are still a member of God’s quorum for women. That calls you to make the world better.
GIVENS: That’s a significant term to use in that connection, isn’t it? A quorum of women.
HOLBROOK: A quorum endowed with power from on high.
GIVENS: Last question today. Holy envy. Can you think of another practice or tradition experience of another faith tradition of which you have holy envy?
HOLBROOK: From a very young age as long as I can remember I had a sense that Brigham Young had said we should look for truth wherever we can find it. I loved the thirteenth Article of Faith, and those were just guiding stars for me my whole life. So there’s a lot in a lot of traditions, but I remember for one class in divinity school we were required to attend three different services in different faith communities.
One I went to was a woman, her name was Debbie Little, and she had a well-paid job, it had something to do with the law. She just felt that she should go to divinity school, so finally she did. She became ordained an episcopal priest. By the end of the ordination process she realized that her calling was to serve the homeless. She holds services at Boston Common every Sunday. Noise, all kinds of public transportation, tourists, and it’s noisy, noisy, noisy. People gather there and take the Eucharist and there’s some songs and they exchanged information also about how better to help support each other. That service I went to with some trepidation. At the time my husband was studying to practice in international medicine, and I didn’t want to catch tuberculosis. And I was sensitive to smell. I was a little bit worried about some of these things. I ended up shaking hands with a lot of people without homes, and coming home on the train I felt like my hand was burning with a kind of holiness. That had been a vision of Christ’s gospel as I’d never practiced or experienced it before. I wish I were better at bringing into my own life on a regular basis, that really just spending time with people who have less.
GIVENS: Beautiful. Kate, thank you for who you are and the wonderful contributions that you have made and will continue to make to the church as a whole. Thank you for coming.
HOLBROOK: Thank you, Terryl.
GIVENS: Thank you. Until next time.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)