In this guest post, Courtney Lyn Jensen Peacock discusses her research on the way religion shapes our understanding of gender roles. She is one of the Maxwell Institute’s Nibley Fellowship award recipients. See other recent “Nibley Fellow Reflections” here.
As a young girl, I loved reading the histories of powerful women, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who found ways to make an impact on the world despite society’s general limitations on women’s agency. My fascination with women’s history led me to focus my undergraduate and graduate studies at BYU on the portrayal of women in Anglo-American religious art and literature. In particular, I analyzed the way in which literary and visual representations of holy, “exceptional” women—particularly Queen Elizabeth I and Protestant female martyrs—both shaped and reflected the discourse regarding women’s nature, roles, and access to power during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Through these studies, I gained a new understanding of the central role religion plays in shaping views on gender roles and attributes. I greatly enjoyed the unique environment of BYU where I could not only learn about academic theories and secular interpretations of history, but have opportunities to discuss how these approaches corresponded with or challenged my own personal religious beliefs. In particular, I am deeply indebted to the various professors who mentored and encouraged me and continue to provide examples of exceptional scholarship coexisting with strong personal faith, including Martha Moffitt Peacock, Craig Harline, Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Heather Belnap Jensen, and Mark Magleby.
In the past few years, while teaching courses on a variety of topics and raising my children, I have pondered the ways in which historical developments impact current dialogue and discourses. In my limited free time, I greatly enjoyed delving into my own history as a descendant of early Latter-day Saints converts and exploring how much my own identity and experience of the world has been shaped by my membership in the LDS church. This personal historical research led me to my dissertation topic, which focuses on early Mormon involvement in Adoptive Masonry (which included women as well as men). I plan to explore the environment in which early Mormon women lived out their faith and how this related to the larger context of women’s experiences in nineteenth-century America.
My research has provided me with exciting opportunities to explore nineteenth-century material culture and to imagine the environment in which early Mormon women lived in more tangible ways. The LDS Church History Library and Museum as well as the Community of Christ Archives and Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum have all been extremely helpful and accommodating in sharing their extensive collections of early Mormon texts and artifacts.
Particular highlights include the opportunities I have had to examine personal items, such as watches, pens, rings, necklaces, and aprons, worn and used by such illustrious early Mormon women as Eliza R. Snow and Emma Smith. And as an example of the personal meaning of my research into Mormon history, during one of my research trips to the DUP in SLC I also discovered furniture and clothing that had been owned by my great-great-grandmother.
One of the aspects of studying Mormon history that I love is the way in which it engages with a broad and diversified group—including not only scholars, but also many non-academics interested in Mormonism for a variety of reasons. With the rise of the Mormon “bloggernacle” and the opening up of new sources (like the Joseph Smith Papers Project), I think the study of Mormon history has never been more exciting. With my dissertation research, I look forward to contributing to the active community exploring Mormon history by uncovering and analyzing the social and religious activities and experiences of early Mormon women.
I am grateful to the Maxwell Institute, BYU, and all the generous donors who support not only my own studies, but all the many other efforts to promote understanding and mutual respect in a wide range of religious studies.