#89—‘Sister Saints,’ with Colleen McDannell
According to historian Colleen McDannell, women have played vital roles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from the beginning. From the hard-scrabble pioneer worker to the Progressive Era suffragette, from the domestic housewife to the working mother, the international convert, the single adult, the black Latter-day Saint—each have contributed to the church’s development and growth in their own important ways.
In this episode Dr. McDannell introduces us to many of these women whose stories are told in her new book Sister Saints: Mormon Women since the End of Polygamy.
Colleen McDannell is Professor of History and Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Utah. One of the nation’s foremost experts on American religious history, she is the author of several books including Material Christianity, Heaven: A History, and her latest book, Sister Saints: Mormon Women since the End of Polygamy.
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BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
Historian Colleen McDannell says, “Women have been a powerful force in shaping the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since its earliest days,” but she says “women’s power has taken different forms at different times”—there is no singular Latter-day Saint woman. There are many different women, not only today but through the church’s history—from the pioneer worker and manager to the Progressive Era suffragette, the domestic housewife “angel mother,” to the international convert, the single adult, the black Latter-day Saint.
In this episode Dr. McDannell talks about her new book about these women. It’s called Sister Saints: Mormon Women since the End of Polygamy.
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BLAIR HODGES: Colleen McDannell, thanks for joining us here at the Maxwell Institute.
COLLEEN MCDANNELL: Thank you.
HODGES: We’re going to talk about the book Sister Saints: Mormon Women since the End of Polygamy. In this book you write that women have been a powerful force in shaping Mormonism since its earliest days, but that power has taken different forms at different times. That’s what you say in the beginning of this book. A lot of Latter-day Saint history has been written focusing on men—focusing on the experience of men, men in leadership, and women sort of take a side part in the story. But your book is a history of how women have shaped the church, and how the church has shaped women as well. So what inspired you to take up this project?
MCDANNELL: I’ve been a professor at the University of Utah in the department of history for thirty years, and I have a lot of friends and colleagues who are LDS. I live in a neighborhood that has lots of Latter-day Saints. So I was curious about what’s life for them. I looked at the literature. There was a lot of wonderful books written on the nineteenth century, but a big absence of literature on the modern world. So that’s what I thought I’d tackle.
HODGES: There’s so much work to do. Your book is an excellent step in filling in that gap. There really is a gap in the twentieth into the twenty-first century.
Where did you come from when you moved to Utah?
MCDANNELL: I moved here from Heidelberg, Germany. I was teaching at a German university in Mannheim. I was teaching American studies.
HODGES: Oh that’s cool. Where did you hail from before then?
MCDANNELL: I did my doctorate at Temple University, which is a big state university in Philadelphia. I have three degrees in religious studies.
HODGES: Where did you grow up?
MCDANNELL: I grew up, I went to junior high and high school in Colorado, and elementary school in California.
HODGES: Okay. So out west.
MCDANNELL: In the west, yes.
HODGES: You have a Catholic background too as well.
MCDANNELL: I do.
HODGES: I think that may come up a little bit throughout the interview, but let’s dig right into chapter one. Chapter one takes us back to the nineteenth century. So you begin where polygamy is sort of starting to fade out. Attending church on Sunday at this time, you say, wasn’t a primary marker of piety. A lot of Latter-day Saints today think of—you go to church on Sunday, that’s one of the main things you do. But you say back then that wasn’t necessarily the case. What was Latter-day Saint life like for women in the church at this time?
MCDANNELL: Well imagine that you’re trying to build a community. And if you’re building community you’re building ditches for water, you’re building churches, you’re doing work in the field, you’re cooking for people who are working in the field, and so the notion that commitment comes from religious attendance was secondary to commitment to the community, to the community of the saints and trying to build the kingdom. That was a very material activity.
HODGES: You say a lot of people converted to the church during this time, a lot of women would convert, sometimes in defiance of family expectations. So you say Deseret was “built on a foundation of foreign and broken families.” That really stood out to me.
MCDANNELL: One of the things we have to keep in mind is that religion is used by women to assert their own spiritual sense, and it’s a force which allows them to do something that they maybe never thought about doing before. That could mean leaving an abusive husband. It could mean packing your children up and taking a boat to a new world. It could mean going from a city into a farming community. So women were changing their lives and religion was a way of allowing them to change.
HODGES: You say a lot of women at this time in the church experienced the supernatural in their daily lives as well. So in addition to all this earthy community building, where they’re getting their hands in the dirt and cooking and doing these type of things, they’re also speaking in tongues and giving blessings and things like that.
MCDANNELL: Right. They were attached to a supernatural order that was quite close. Many Protestants had argued that the apostolic era was an era of these gifts and ideas, but Mormons argued that every person could have this. Women tapped into that and they sang in tongues, they spoke in tongues, they blessed the sick, and also women who were about to have children.
HODGES: You say that there’s some spiritual authority that came along with that for Latter-day Saint women. Members of the church today think of priesthood leadership. Back then you talk a lot about how women could influence thought in the church and through their own prophesying and blessings and even dreams.
MCDANNELL: Right. Exactly. They did this oftentimes for the female community, but there were times when the elders would come and bless, but then the women would also come and bless. So it was a “both and” situation, not an “either or” situation.
HODGES: I also liked how you pointed to the temple as being an important sphere for women’s religious experience. Today, again, Latter-day Saints go to the temple and go through an endowment session, or they participate in worship. But you talk about how women were even more involved in the temple back then because they were helping make the temple what it was.
MCDANNELL: Exactly. So they put their hair art in it. They wove. They made silk doo-bobs to decorate it. So there was a physical presence of women as well. It was the house of God and they were decorating the house of God, the home of God.
HODGES: In other interviews on the Maxwell Institute Podcast we’ve talked to historians about how the Relief Society was established, and then Brigham Young disbanded it, and then it was reestablished in the Utah territory. So for lack of time, I’ll refer listeners back to those earlier episodes.
We’ll move through that period then to polygamy’s end, and that’s chapter two. That’s a clever title, “Polygamy’s End.” It seems that it could refer both to the actual ending of the practice of polygamy, which began in 1890 but stretched unto the 1900s, but polygamy’s end could also refer to its purpose, which differed depending on who you asked, if you asked LDS women or men or even people outside the church who opposed it. So how did polygamy fit into America’s cultural landscape at that time?
MCDANNELL: Well certainly non-Mormons, polygamy was considered to be as horrible as slavery. It was considered to be a barbaric practice, and Protestant men and women worked very strongly in order to end polygamy. Mormon women had a variety of different responses to it, but they always kept a very positive public face, and they worked hard to try to adjudicate in the government in order to allow them to express themselves religiously; they said we have freedom of religion, we should be able to be a part of a polygamous household if we so choose.
Privately, they had much more mixed feelings about polygamy. It depended on many things. How well to do the husband was. How many wives were connected. Where they lived. The difficult thing for a lot of these women was it was very hard on their children. So women might have entered because they were filled with enthusiasm for the religion, but then the children who came from these marriages oftentimes had a difficult time dealing with what it meant to be a child in a polygamist household.
HODGES: One of the benefits of this book is you don’t really drill down to the exact origins of how plural marriage began to be practiced by Joseph Smith. You just sort of lay out a simple history of that, and you move to the voices of women and how they were experiencing it.
One of the benefits of doing that is you’re able to talk about how women themselves publicly would promote the practice, but privately, as you said, would voice their difficulties with it. Also talk about what might make a plural marriage more or less successful.
MCDANNELL: So lots of times, again, the children are being interviewed in the 1930s, and they’re reflecting back on what their mothers would say, and mothers would say things like God loves all their children, and therefore the husband can love all of his wives, and living in a plural household allows us to sacrifice and to share. Women would say it allows us to specialize our labors so that women who are skilled at one thing or another can do that.
So they would come up with all sorts of explanations about why this was a practice that worked for them, but then when you again look at the diaries women longed for their husbands. They wanted to have relationships that were close and intimate. Many of these men just were incapable of doing this. They had so many things that they were trying to juggle it was impossible for them to give the kind of care and attention that the women wanted and longed for.
HODGES: Dr. McDannell, one of the unexpected blessings, you say, of polygamy was that it helped lead to women being able to vote, but here were some strange coalitions going on. So did LDS women and men see eye to eye?
MCDANNELL: Women of course wanted to assert their right to be in polygamous households, and they adjudicated and also LDS men wanted to make sure that their women had a political say. So in 1870 women in Utah got the vote. They had the vote until 1886, I think I’ve got that date right, when the federal government disenfranchised women because of polygamy. So they associated themselves with the women’s rights movements of the era, but the moderate suffrage movement women would not have the Mormons because, again, they were considered to be sexual deviants. So it was the radical wing of the suffrage movement that embraced the Mormon women, as much as Protestant women would, and became associates with these women.
So from this connection with the radical wing of the suffrage movement, many Mormon women learned political and social changes that they brought into the Relief Society and other parts of Mormon culture.
HODGES: It was also obvious that you pointed out how Latter-day Saint women sometimes differed from each other even on whether voting was worth all the effort that it took, or whether it would be a good thing for women to vote. So there was internal disagreement.
MCDANNELL: Exactly. The assumption was that if we’re going to better our society, how do we do that? Some women said we do this by becoming strong religious actors, and other women said yes, we can be strong religious actors, we can be strong in our faith, but we also need to be active civically. We also need to engage in politics and education and other kinds of areas, and therefore we need to have the vote and exercise the vote, and we want to spend time securing that vote.
HODGES: It’s interesting that this happened. With the decline of polygamy women in the church were facing new challenges, which you say changed the nature of the Relief Society itself. So this is kind of entering into the Progressive Era. What kind of changes were happening here? What was the Relief Society becoming as polygamy declined and eventually ceased?
MCDANNELL: Well after the end of polygamy, which was a very unique characteristic that Latter-day Saints had, there was a sense of where do we go from here? We’ve lost this key element. What makes us saints? What gives us a sense of identity? So the church had to decide what to do, and one of the things it decided to do was to make sure that people were coming to church, that they were tithing, that they were supporting the institution of the church.
So it was now the kingdom, in some ways, had been built, they had dug the ditches and built the ward houses and so on, and now it was time to actually go and participate. So that meant that organizations like the Relief Society became more important, and many of those ward societies owned their own buildings and did activities within those buildings to support women’s connections, both at home and in the civic society.
HODGES: Yeah, in fact building construction plays an interesting role in this chapter. You talk about how specifically the desire to construct a Relief Society building for the church kind of shows the changes in women’s place in church organization.
MCDANNELL: So around the turn of the century there was a desire to create a Relief Society building that would deal with the whole nation’s sense of sisters. This was a general move within the church to organize and to connect people together. So the church said alright, if you would like to build this building you have to raise so much money, and then we will give you the land. But the women were unable to raise the amount of money. That’s because women were not working at wage labor. They didn’t have cash. So they worked quite hard. They had Sunday egg sales—
HODGES: There are only so many bazaars you can have—
MCDANNELL: Yeah. They never were able to raise that money. Now that was at the turn of the century. Eventually in the 1950s they did get their own Relief Society building, but the building which was eventually built was for the presiding bishopric. This was just a very sad moment for them, because they felt like they had worked very hard, but the men from their perspective was like, “You took all this time and you couldn’t even raise the money. You’re just dithering around and we need this. This is what we need. It’s more important.”
I think this was a sign of the decline, as the society modernizes and becomes more technically oriented, if women don’t have the skills, if they don’t have the education, if they don’t have the cash or the professions, they get edged out. So in a farming community women’s labor is more equal almost to her husband, but in an industrial society she doesn’t have the financial power to do the things she wants to do.
HODGES: You also trace the decline of spiritual gifts to this same sort of phenomenon, with the rise of medical science and specialization, perhaps the decline in blessings in healing from women, things like that.
MCDANNELL: You see in the diaries, you see women saying “oh, we used to do this, but we don’t do this anymore.” As I note in Sister Saints, they didn’t seem to regret this. Many LDS women now look back and say “oh, we had all of this spiritual power.” But at that time, women began to see the problem was being sick, and now we have clean milk, we have clean water, we have the beginnings of inoculations. These are the things that we want to get behind and the spiritual gifts of healing and speaking in tongues become less important. Also the ward life slowly becomes more important than what you would do in your home.
HODGES: Another thing you talk about is how there was a big shift in 1921 when, up until then presidents of the Relief Society would serve until death, similar to how presidents of the LDS church in total would serve. Why did that change?
MCDANNELL: So Emmeline Wells was the last Relief Society president who, well, I guess you could say she was the first Relief Society president who was released before her death. This was very, very hard on her. She died two weeks after she was released. She was in her nineties and she had been failing and weak and, as we all know, we age and we’re not as spry as we used to be, and it was noticed. Relief Society was a very vibrant and complicated organization, and she just was having a difficult time managing it. So it was decided to be more efficient.
This was a big shift, to move from tradition, where you did something until you died, to basically saying you’re no longer doing the job and so we are going to replace you. That was, again, in the Progressive Era you have this stress on efficiency and organization over perhaps tradition.
HODGES: Did you see different Latter-day Saint women embracing that change or resisting that change? Was there tension there about how that shook out?
MCDANNELL: Within the Relief Society General Board there were, again, always different opinions. Some women wanted to have a much more spiritually oriented organization, where others wanted to have more civic engagement. Some only wanted to focus on their own communities, and others wanted to partner with other communities. So there was a lot of diversity, and you can see some of this in the letters and the diaries.
HODGES: That’s Colleen McDannell. She’s a professor of history and Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Utah. Today we’re talking about her book Sister Saints.
Another important part of women’s work in this era required cooperation with government agencies. So the Relief Society would work with government agencies to help serve the poor. What kind of things were women accomplishing at this time?
MCDANNELL: In the 1920s there was a very important act called The Sheppard-Towner Act that was passed. It was the first federal monies given for health in this country, and it was passed in Utah. When it first came up everybody was very excited. It went well. There was one naysayer, and eventually he would win out, but before he won out there was a partnering of the federal government with federal funding and the Relief Society in order to bring dental and medical health to rural areas, to set up clinics, to help women and children with problems to bring pamphlets about how to eat properly, kids got eyeglasses, there was basic medical care. This lowered, for instance, infant mortality rate in Utah, but it was determined by many men and by the time you get into the late ’20s, that it was taking over the role of the state, the state of Utah, and the role of the family, and eventually the money was stopped.
HODGES: In addition to direction of Latter-day Saint church leaders sort of getting out of these partnerships with government, there was also ways the New Deal itself began to edge out women, and not just Latter-day Saint women. This was a really surprising part of the book for me. Maybe spend a moment with that.
MCDANNELL: So charity has always been under the domain of women because women are aware of what’s happening in families and between families, and oftentimes women will speak to each other about the stresses and strains of their families, so charity has always been considered something which was under the purvey of women. Of course with the Relief Society, women also were involved with giving charity and taking care of families. They would work with the bishops to distribute money and to distribute goods.
But what happened during the Depression was that the needs of people became so severe and so huge that it was very difficult for churches, including the LDS church, to deal with poverty because so many people were out of work, and there was such great suffering in the country. So the federal government began to become more involved with this, and in the initial early years, the women, the Relief Society, partnered with the federal government in order to provide certain amount of relief.
Then it was determined in the mid-1930s that there would be a welfare plan and that plan would be administered by the priesthood by LDS men. Women were edged out of the leadership. They continue to provide the material goods, so they canned peaches and they made quilts and they made the food that then was distributed to people in need, but they no longer were actually organizing and they were not a part of the leadership of this. But the reality of the situation was the need was so great that people in Utah, Mormons in Utah, took both from the federal government and from the LDS church in order to survive the dark days of the depression.
HODGES: I’ll add too one thing that you mentioned is there was a change here. Amy Brown Lyman, who was a Latter-day Saint woman and a big proponent of a lot of these programs and things that the Relief Society was doing, she actually worked out for women to receive wage labor during this time as well, from the church, and then that would shift as well and just general opinions about wage labor was sort of controversial at this time.
MCDANNELL: Well when you have an institution that begins to develop and grow, you have a bureaucracy, which is growing, you need laborers. You need people who are going to by typists and clerks, and in the case of social services you need social workers. So women in their early twenties, the teens and twenties, began to be hired by the LDS church to fill these various roles, and over the years as the church has grown, even though it has tried to be careful about who actually is holding these roles, and are you married, do you have children, okay, you can have children but they have to be older children, these all begin to change because the institutional church needs the labor of women to run its growing bureaucracy.
HODGES: Chapter four was called “Edged Out,” so you’re tracing the Relief Society’s evolution from this fully woman directed institution into an auxiliary under the direction first and foremost of male priesthood leaders in the church. 1945 to 1970 was kind of a tumultuous period, but you say that priesthood leaders and auxiliary leaders during this time—men and women alike—were on the same page generally crafting this well defined image of a faithful woman in the church. So the picture of the ideal Latter-day Saint was sort of changing at this time. What did that image look like?
MCDANNELL: So the chapter is called “A Style of Our Own,” which is this notion that the Latter-day Saint community has a culture which is different from the dominant culture. Actually in the 1950s it was quite similar to the dominant culture. There were many things that were the same.
As you move into the 60s and 70s that style of our own does become much more unique as the American culture begins to change. This is very much a culture that is focused on the ward and ward activities. There’s bazaars and dances and parties and summer camps, and many, many activities that women oftentimes organize.
So I try to collect all these various things that women were doing at this period, and it allowed them to be a part of a community to socialize with other women, but also to exercise leadership skills, to learn how to do their own budgeting, to exercise their creativity and crafts, and that was great for many women. Not all, but many of them.
HODGES: You talk about caricatures of the ideal Latter-day Saint mother versus the worldly, selfish woman. So you would see fiction stories in church publications about the woman who goes off to work and sort of abandons her family, or doesn’t really care, but then you have the saintly Latter-day Saint angel mother who stays home and nurtures the children. But what you point out is that neither of those caricatures really captures that Progressive Era woman.
MCDANNELL: Right. So the nineteenth century woman, the early twentieth, nineteenth century woman was someone who’s also very active in civic organizations, and who was involved in women’s clubs, who was involved on the library guild, who might have belonged to a writing society, so she had lots of outside activities, which were neither church nor home based. But by the time you get into the post-World War II era, those civic activities fall away, and there are only a very few places in the Relief Society magazine where women who have those kinds of activities are celebrated.
HODGES: Another issue that you raise here is perfectionism. A lot of these stories would sort of present this very perfect image of women, but you also say, here’s a quote, “real Latter-day Saints of the ’50s, not the imaginary ones of fiction, or the subject of church leaders’ stories, clearly saw the dark side of motherhood as well.” Talk about that through the lens of this person, Mary Marker.
MCDANNELL: One of the wonderful discoveries that I made in writing Sister Saints was that the University of Utah in their special collections have a very rich set of letters. These letters were basically letters sent to the advice columnist at the Deseret News. Her real name was Ramona Cannon, and our own university, my College of Humanities, has an award named after her.
She was a remarkable individual. She got a Master’s degree in 1913 in English. She married a man who already had four children and they moved around the globe, but then in her fifties she became a widow and he died. Although most of her children were older she needed to support herself all of a sudden. So he had worked for the Deseret News. He was the managing editor, I think, of the Deseret News. So she got the job.
She was the equivalent of Ann Landers, or Dear Abby. Women and men sent her letters about their issues and problems. Some of them were simple letters about, “I have a sewing machine I need to sell. Do you know anyone who wants to buy a sewing machine?” But others were very serious about the strains of living in small houses with in-laws, or how to deal with the fact that you just really hate housekeeping, or you’re very disorganized, or you have four children under the age of five, how can I live?
So Mary Marker would write letters, just like Dear Abby would, back and explain, give advice. But then other LDS women would write Mary Marker and also give their advice. We have those letters at the University of Utah, which is just really remarkable.
HODGES: Do you remember, there was one from 1952 that was this anti-Mother’s Day letter. Do you remember that one?
HODGES: We’ve got to hear about that one.
MCDANNELL: Yes. There were women who were basically saying, and this is from the 40s and 50s, “I’m sick of Mother’s Day. I’m sick of the ideal women. Why aren’t my children perfect?” And women were reflecting on this very early on.
HODGES: You’ll still hear that today. This is what stuck out to me so much. This letter from 1952 could have been written on a blog last May, where women are talking about being pedestalized and about the immense pressure that they feel. When Mary would approach those letters, what was her tone like? Was she corrective? Was she professorial? Was she empathetic? What was Mary like?
MCDANNELL: I think she was very empathetic. She was also very modern. She did not hesitate to tell women, “You might need to see a psychiatrist,” which was a serious thing in the 1950s, because psychiatry was relatively rough in that period. So she was very supportive. She gave a lot of advice. She was very much of the old school, Progressive Era, home economics, you just need a system, if you could just figure it out you’d become more efficient, if you were more efficient you’d have more free time, and that would allow you to be more relaxed and enjoy your children and your husband. That only went so far, however.
HODGES: Did she acknowledge that too? Or did she sort of stop at the, “Oh, here’s the system. Get onboard.”
MCDANNELL: I think she was always in the system. She really was somebody who just assumed that efficiency and keeping busy would pretty much solve every problem. There were other women in the early ’60s who offered housekeeping advice to women, again trying to say your problem is that you’re disorganized. So the problem is you, not the bigger social structure of the United States culture.
HODGES: Right. Like the division of labor or something. They just sort of took it for granted that this is a woman’s sphere, here’s the system to employ, rather than say should the sphere look different or could it look different?
HODGES: It seems like Mary was very informed then by not just Latter-day Saint thought at the time, but then just Progressive Era culture in general, this sort of systemization.
MCDANNELL: Right. She was older, so she was somebody who came of age in the 1920s, so she knew that world. But she was facing women who didn’t have any other outlet. Also by the 1950s there’s tremendous pressure on women to become consumers, to have consumer goods, to be a part of the modern consumer culture, so it’s not simply that you have to keep your kids from being run over by a wild horse, they have to be well educated, they have to be clean, they have to have pressed clothes, things have to be new, you need to have a washing machine, you need to have a backyard, all of the kinds of domesticity of the 1950s, which an earlier generation would not have been an issue for them.
HODGES: Yeah, you call these new markers of purity, like the type of food people eat, the clothes that are worn and what they look like and all of this. Then you also talk about this rise of muscular Christianity for men, which was developing opposite of what women were going through.
MCDANNELL: Right. That was, again, this sense that they are adopting some of these characteristics from general Protestant culture, from the American culture of the time, that the men were the strong and the ones who were the breadwinners, and the women were to take care of the home. This was a very divided world, which the pioneer women would not have experienced to the same extent.
HODGES: Yeah, the division of labor was just different. The book does a really nice job of showing the development of the domestic sphere, the providing by the men, the nurturing by the women, and how you see cultural pressures coming to bear on those changes. So that’s in the book Sister Saints written by Dr. Colleen McDannell from the University of Utah. She’s visiting here at the Institute to talk about the new book.
So your sixth chapter is called “Not All Alike.” This is a chapter that talks about the tumultuous 1970s. For the church this was a time of increased centralization, what’s come to be known as correlation. You say that this correlation sort of ran against the general trend in American Christianity at this time. I think this will come as a surprise to a lot of people.
MCDANNELL: So if you look both at the Catholic Church as well as Protestant churches, in these religious organizations there is a move towards things becoming more dis-central, and also becoming more fragmented, and a celebration of difference. So after the Second Vatican Council in 1965, Catholics around the world say, “Okay, we don’t have to all act like Europeans. If we live in Africa or in India we can have our own ritual customs.”
So for instance the Catholic mass, which had been in Latin, a universal language, this is replaced by the vernacular, the language that the people speak. This also happens, something similar, for Protestants as well. You begin to have a variety of groups. You have Evangelicals, and Fundamentalists, and Liberals, and Moderates. So Protestantism also begins to fragment and people go to their churches that are similar to their ideological beliefs and also to their social class.
This is just the opposite for the LDS church, which is trying to centralize. So the way it deals with globalization, instead of just saying alright, everyone can have their own different culture, is trying to say, well what is the core key Christ culture? What should all of us have in general? So it tends to reduce the types of beliefs, or rituals that might fragment or tend to fragment the core religious culture.
HODGES: How do you think Latter-day Saint women’s experiences change during that time from earlier periods?
MCDANNELL: Well one of the things that happened is if you look at 1970 with the end of the Relief Society magazine, is the church begins to pull back from trying to define what it means to be a good mother, or to be feminine, as an institution. So instead of giving really clear descriptions of what you should be doing, it just gives some general principles. So that opens up a space for women who are non-employed by the church to provide their own perspectives on this.
This is the part of Sister Saints that I talk about Fascinating Womanhood and Helen Andelin, who provides a view of femininity which is not promoted or supported necessarily by church leaders, but becomes very influential in Mormon culture.
HODGES: This is the Fascinating Womanhood book. If you’ve never heard of it, basically in a nutshell this is teaching women how to act like children in order to sort of manipulate their husbands. Maybe that’s unfair, but that’s sort of the impression I get, is here’s how to be a delicate woman and make your man really want to come to your rescue, and this sort of thing.
MCDANNELL: I think the basic foundation, which is not quite so severe as that, but the basic foundation is that there are two separate genders and that they’re very, very distinct, and if one gets more like the other, the other will push away. So one of my favorite quotes from Helen Andelin is, “If you,” i.e., if you women, “pick up the bucket, he will set it down.” In other words, if you women go out to work and become very independent and very efficient, then the men will just basically say why should we do any of these things? We’re being robbed of our sense of masculinity.
So what Helen Andelin argued was that if you want your men to be masculine, you have to be very feminine. For her that meant something which was soft and delicate, innocent as opposed to childlike, but innocent, and also something where you were continually flattering the men, even if they made mistakes, even if they seemed to be going the wrong way, that you were always supportive and never critical.
HODGES: It’s a fascinating… to use the word [laughter]. Alright. So that’s Colleen McDannell. She’s professor history and Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Utah. We’re talking about the book Sister Saints.
Dr. McDannell, although you pay attention to international circumstances in various places throughout the book, chapter eight really zeroes in on the global church more than other chapters. Through the ’90s and to today, conversions in the global south were on the rise. Places like Asia, Africa, and Latin America. You say that women in particular were being drawn in greater numbers to church communities, not just the Latter-day Saint church, but Pentecostal, and other religious entities.
What was drawing women to church in these areas?
MCDANNELL: So one of the things that church does, but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as Catholics, and Pentecostal churches, is it provides a community in a world that has been reconstituted for many women. So if they’re moving from a rural area into the cities, how do you have a community? How do you have a place to raise your children? How do you meet people? How do you get jobs?
So religious organizations provide not only a spiritual foundation to give you a sense of meaning outside of yourself, but they also provide social connections and economic connections. So especially in the global south Christianity has been growing because as countries urbanize, Christianity becomes the way of creating a village life within a city. For women who are oftentimes the primary caregivers of their families and their children, religion becomes quite important this way.
HODGES: You show how they’re joining different organizations, not just the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but other organizations. You also point to examples here. So a woman convert in Italy, for example. She might receive some of the messages from church headquarters differently than a white woman along the Wasatch Front, for example.
MCDANNELL: It’s important to realize that most women in the world work. They work in hard jobs. They work at dirty jobs. They work at boring jobs. They don’t just do it for self-fulfillment or because they want to get out of the home or because they’re told in some ways that they have to work. They work because they need to survive.
So one of the things that the church does in various places around the world is to say the work that you do is dignified. The work that you do is honest, and we can help network it so that you can support your family in ways which are healthy, and that the goal should be to create strong families, not necessarily to limit the kinds of activities that women do. So the church is forced by the reality of women’s lives to see work in a very different way than it would in a much more affluent North American situation.
HODGES: Do you think it’s fair to say that the concerns of some white American feminist women don’t really translate globally the same way because of this?
MCDANNELL: So you always have to talk about religion in terms of the context. What is the context? So the context in Utah is a very different context from the context in South Africa, or the context in Sicily. So you have to always say what is the area around these women?
So for instance in South Africa, sometimes women would say Mormonism is actually an important religion for women because it asks men to become active in the home. It asks them to maybe change the baby’s diapers, or to help in the kitchen, or to support the emotional needs of women so that the men are not just going out and hanging out with other men, they’re actually paying attention to what women need and what children need. For many women in the global south this is a very important thing.
So the issues that feminists in the US, for instance women’s ordination, that might be something important to them. For many other women around the world this is not something which they are particularly concerned about because it’s their daily life that they’re worried about.
HODGES: Do they get concerned, sometimes messages from General Conference or church publications sort of discourage women from working, for example. As you mentioned, women in other countries, most of them are working. How do they receive those kind of messages?
MCDANNELL: I think women, especially women who are working at hard jobs, jobs that are difficult, they dream to live in a world, or to have a priesthood holder in the family who will support them and provide for them. This is a wonderful goal, a wonderful dream, and they want this very much and they want to work towards that. But the reality is that many women convert with their children, either their partners or spouses are not LDS, or they are coming as single people. So although they would love to have that kind of life where they can focus entirely on their homes, they’re not offered that kind of opportunity. It’s not because they’re not saving their money or because they’re being extravagant, it’s the reality of what most of the world is like.
HODGES: Mariagrazia Zummo is one person that you bring up. She basically says that her ward is not pressuring her not to work; it’s actually sort of this really nice community that’s helping her find work or help other women find work. It’s a networking opportunity.
MCDANNELL: Right. So you have a tight community where people know opportunities for work, and also they can say look, I’m Italian but I don’t drink and I don’t smoke and I focus on my family and I’m an honest hard worker. This of course are all the skills that employers want in many countries, and even here in the United States. In order to be a strong sustaining family, sometimes women have to rethink where they need to put their energy.
HODGES: That’s Dr. Colleen McDannell. We’re talking about the book Sister Saints: Mormon Women since the End of Polygamy.
A decade into the 2000s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints saw a rise in its number of missionaries. There were big changes with how missionaries spread the message as well. You say that more women than ever were joining the missionary ranks, and you could see changes in how missionaries were delivering their message that seemed to fit well with those changes.
MCDANNELL: Women have always been missionaries, from the very beginning. They’ve always taken a part in promoting the gospel. What you have in the early days was a model which was in some ways very hostile to women, so this idea that the missionary was a soldier, or a missionary was the businessman who came with his flip charts and his memorized lessons, and his goal was to teach in a very direct way. This played to certain stereotypical strengths of men. That meant that women who were missionaries were a bit like ducks out of water, is that what I want to say? They were placed in an environment which didn’t really play to their strengths.
HODGES: Yeah, more typically masculine modes of communication basically.
MCDANNELL: So they were always considered to be somebody, they were perhaps misfits like “oh, maybe they couldn’t get married, that’s why they became missionaries,” or “nobody wanted them for a wife” or so on, or they were too old, or whatever. There was some problem with women.
When the changes in the new millennium came about, there was a change in the ways that missionaries were understood to work in the society, the memorized lessons kind of fell away, and missionaries were encouraged to be relational and to talk and to be informal, and to meet people where they were, and to be kind of outgoing. That played actually to the strengths of the sister missionaries, that women who were socialized into certain patterns of behavior, they learn how to maybe be a bit more friendly, a bit more outgoing, to be more comfortable with strangers. This allowed them to feel more secure as missionaries.
HODGES: The language that you used was really catchy and interesting. You basically say there’s this shift from “report” talk, this sort of conveying of information and preaching and sort of discourse, to “rapport” talk, which is more about interpersonal feelings and building relationships. I think that language is really useful.
I wanted to talk about chapter nine next, which takes an extended look at the origins and the use of the Family Proclamation. This is a doctrinal pronouncement from 1995 that addresses the nature of family. How do you see the Proclamation comparing to views of other Christian denominations at the time. Did it fit in with other Christian groups, or is it something you would have seen from a lot of other Christian groups? Or did it stand out in some ways?
MCDANNELL: I think my interpretation on the Proclamation is unique and different, so I’m only going to give you a hint, I’m not going to lay it out all out for you now, but I think it’s important as a historian, we always try to contextualize things. We try to see what’s around the topic.
So I looked at what Southern Baptists were doing at about the same time, and how they were understanding the place of women within the home, and then I also looked backwards to see what the other kinds of language church leaders were using. I think that what I argue is that there is a theology which stresses just glimpses of things, or sort of limits of things, and when it’s not all laid out, people can develop their own attitudes of what the gender roles are.
HODGES: That’s Colleen McDannell. She’s professor of history and Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Utah. We’re talking about the book Sister Saints.
Chapter ten is called “Internet Mormons.” One of the most interesting contrasts you offer in this final chapter is between feminist-oriented blogs where Latter-day Saint women are writing who are sort of feminists, and Facebook groups, on one hand, and then these lifestyle blogs, which sometimes are called Mormon Mommy Blogs, on the other. How do these apparently different online presences reflect longstanding impulses for Latter-day Saint women? They’re not new phenomena, they seem to be dealing with some of the same issues in the same ways, in these new online venues.
MCDANNELL: So women are masters of communications, and they find many ways of communicating their ideas back and forth. So in the nineteenth century you had a magazine that Emmeline Wells organized called The Women’s Exponent and it was an elaborate, wonderful piece of writing and she actually made money off of this magazine before it was then reconvened and reworked into the Relief Society magazine. So she promoted many feminist ideas in that.
But the lifestyle bloggers, the Mommy Bloggers, they have commercialized domesticity. So they are actually making employment. They are making money out of this longstanding notion that Mormons are specialists in creating wholesome and wonderful families. They are marketing that to many non-Mormons and have become quite famous for this.
That’s very similar to other women like Helen Andelin, who created workshops and wrote materials in order to promote her particular perspective on femininity. So yes there’s the ideology around it. There are the ideas that she promotes about what it means to be a good woman, but she’s also making money off of these things.
HODGES: One of the things you say at the end of the book, in fact in the epilogue of the book, is that there’s never been a singular Mormon woman. There have been a lot of Mormon women. How would you characterize in broad strokes some examples of different Mormon women?
MCDANNELL: Well we have the pioneers who come. We have the adventurers who are here who are experimenting with polygamy. We have the feminists from the nineteenth century that are promoting the suffrage movement. We have the civic organizers, the literary, the writers, the artists. We have the women who are not only raising families in the 1950s, but are also writing about it and making fiction for their Relief Society magazines. We have women who are staunch feminists who supported the ERA, and we have women who are aggressively anti-ERA. We have women who live in South Africa, ones who live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, ones who live in Sandy. And so what is this notion of the Mormon woman? What could possibly be a constant through all of these various decades?
HODGES: The book does an excellent job introducing people to a lot of different sister saints. That’s Colleen McDannell. She’s professor of history and Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Utah. We’re talking about the book Sister Saints: Mormon Women since the End of Polygamy.
Before we go, I wanted to ask what you would say to Latter-day Saint readers who might feel uncomfortable with some of the book’s history. You approach this as a scholar and so some of the languages, some of the categories that you use are more in line with how scholars approach things, although you do try to speak to a broad audience. So what would you say to people that might be introduced to different things here that are unsettling?
MCDANNELL: Well first and foremost, I’m a historian. I’m a historian of American religions. So I’ve written books on Catholics. I’ve written a book about heaven. I’ve written a book about photography and material culture. I wrote about Protestants and Jews and Catholics. So I try to situate Latter-day Saints within a broad religious community. I make efforts throughout the book to say here’s how they are similar and different from other individuals within this very complicated American religious landscape.
So I would say, you know, consider one’s own faith your own tradition as one among many different ways that Americans experience the divine.
HODGES: Dr. McDannell, congratulations on this book. Do you have anything new coming up? Any projects that you’re working on now?
MCDANNELL: I’m going to Vietnam for five months, so I’m looking forward to observing LDS wards in Asia.
HODGES: We’ll look forward to seeing what comes out of that. Thanks for joining us today.
MCDANNELL: Thank you very much.
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