Suppose that you were interested in Mormon women’s history, and suppose that you owned a library card and a computer. Now suppose you wished a smart group of LDS scholars would make you a list of classic texts and maybe comment a bit on why each book is worth a read. And while they were at it, throw in a roundup of web and digital resources for Mormon women’s history, too.
Voila! Today is your lucky day. The JI authors have been busy crowdsourcing this annotated bibliography of our must-read books and online archival resources for the history of Mormon women. We omitted articles (somewhat reluctantly, because there are so many good ones, especially recently – which I hope bodes well for future books), but if there’s interest, we could be persuaded to keep at it.
Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson, Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective (University of Illinois, 1987) – like several of the books that follow on this list, this classic edited volume is probably overdue for a revised edition. It collects early (therefore sometimes provisional or sketchy) essays exploring Mormon women’s history as a new/emerging field in the 1970s and 1980s. Helpful in framing some of the overall questions and themes of the field as it was then conceived.
Martha Sonntag Bradley, Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority, and Equal Rights (Signature, 2005). Bradley documents the ideological, political, and religious divide over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and early 1980s, highlighting the divisions that it created within Mormonism. In the midst of a strong anti-ERA position outlined by the Church leaders and followed by a majority of members, this is the story of pro-ERA Mormon feminists who tried to voice their support for the Amendment, in spite of fellow members’ questioning of their faithfulness. In many ways, this is a story of how Mormonism encountered Second Wave feminism, how they met and how they departed. Here’s a link to Andrea Radke-Moss’s review in 2007 BYU Studies.
Martha Sonntag Bradley and Mary Brown Firmage Woodward, 4 Zinas: A Story of Mothers and Daughters on the Mormon Frontier (Signature Books, 2000). A lively model of multi-generational biographical narrative that uses one family’s story as a window onto changing Mormon women’s lives throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Vicky Burgess-Olsen, editor, Sister Saints (Brigham Young University Press, 1978). Of the same era as Leonard Arrington’s Sun-Bonnet Sisters, with readable biographical sketches of individual Mormon women pioneers in the “great women” corrective tradition to “great men” history.
Claudia Bushman, Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah (Utah State U Press, reissued 1997). The field had to start somewhere, and to a large extent, it is with this book, which succinctly captured the cultural distance Mormon women had traveled from the 1850s to the 1970s. The second edition includes a nice bibliography of Mormon women’s history.
Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Signature, 1997). Compton’s book is most recognized as a treatment of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, however, it is more accurately the stories of a diverse set of women, only small portion of their lives being married to Smith. Each chapter is a short but detailed biography of the over 30 women who married Smith.
Marie Cornwall, Contemporary Mormonism: Social Scientific Perspectives (U Illinois, 1994) – this volume originated in the 1989 meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Salt Lake, and provides respectable social-scientific research on late 20th century Mormon women’s history in essays by Cornwall, and Laurence Iannoccone and Carrie A. Miles.
Kathryn Daynes, More Wives than One: The Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910 (2001) – Well-crafted social history of polygamy, focusing primarily on San Pete County, Utah, though it has overviews of the various phases of polygamy more generally in Mormonism.
Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (Deseret, 1992). We’re about due for a revised edition, let’s hope – but this is the standard and very thorough institutional history of Relief Society launched for the organization’s sesquicentennial. I’d love to see the notion of “LDS women’s history” broadened far beyond those institutional boundaries, especially as RS membership was voluntary for much of its first century – but this is an essential reference work.
Derr also co-authored an earlier work with Kenneth W. and Audrey M. Godfrey, Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1830-1900 (Deseret, 1982) that’s still a good read. In addition, she’s the main biographer of the iconic, enigmatic, prolific Eliza R. Snow, and the editor of Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry (BYU Press, 2009).
Sheri Dew and Virginia H. Pearce, contributing eds., The Beginning of Better Days: Divine Instruction to Women from the Prophet Joseph Smith (Deseret, 2012). A brand-new book that’s an odd hybrid of reprinted original text from Joseph Smith’s counsel to the Relief Society as recorded in its 1842 Minute book, essays reflecting on those texts from two notable Mormon women, and space for personal notes and journaling – suggesting a refreshingly midrashic approach to some key Nauvoo-era texts about women’s roles in the church and Mormon movement.
Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth Century America (2001) – Solid legal history of polygamy within the context of broader contests over religious freedom in America.
Maxine Hanks, ed. Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism (Signature Books, 1992) – by now a classic that provides historical, cultural and doctrinal context to the Mormon feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s.
Jerrie Hurd, Leaven: 150 Women in Scripture Whose Lives Lift Ours (Aspen Books, 1995). Not especially scholarly, but I’m adding it because it’s a basic introduction to strategies for reading women into (and out of) the standard works including the women mentioned in the Doctrine & Covenants.
Carol Cornwall Madsen is one of the grande dames of published Mormon women’s history – see, for example, these -
Madsen, An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Wells, 1870-1920 (BYU Press, 2005).
Madsen, In Their Own Words: Women and the Story of Nauvoo (Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain, 1994).
Madsen and Susan Staker, Sisters and Little Saints: One Hundred Years of Primary (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979).
Madsen and Cherry B. Silver, New Scholarship on Latter-day Saint Women in the Twentieth Century: Selections from the Women’s History Initiative Seminars, 2003-2004 (Joseph Fielding Smith Institute, 2005) – an edited volume that emerged from a conference at BYU in 2004 which turned attention to the much-neglected 20th-century history of Mormon women.
Susanna Morrill. White Roses on the Floor of Heaven: Mormon Women’s Popular Theology 1880-1920 (Routledge, 2006) – takes a deeper cultural studies approach to something that seems hyper-feminine (Victorian-era flower literary imagery) on the surface, but which has fascinating theological implications. An example of bottom-up lived religion, which is especially helpful because Church history is often told top-down.
Linda King Newell and Valleen Tippets Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith (U Illinois, 1994). Like In Sacred Loneliness, this book often gets right at what interests many about early polygamy in Mormonism: who were these women and why did they acquiesce to a system so foreign to its own time (much less to our own) – but without sugarcoating or apologetics. May just change the way you view the early Church.
Carol Holindrake Nielson, The Salt Lake City 14th Ward Album Quilt: Stories of the Relief Society Women and Their Quilt (University of Utah Press, 2004). Especially interesting for getting a snapshot of 1850s Salt Lake City and the activities of the women in and around the 14th Ward – which was, in some ways, utterly typical and in other ways, not typical at all.
Reid L. Neilson, Exhibiting Mormonism: The Latter-day Saints and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (Oxford, 2011). Has a chapter called “Mormon Matriarchs,” on Mormon women’s preparation for and participation in the World’s Congress of Representative Women in May 1893, just prior to the Fair’s official opening. Sessions of the Congress were led by both the Relief Society and the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association.
Patricia Lyn Scott and Linda Thatcher, Women in Utah History: Paradigm or Paradox? (Utah State University Press, 2005). Very helpful for situating Mormon women within the history of other women in Utah state history.
Ellis R. Shipp, M.D. While Others Slept (Bookcraft, 1962). Like Mormon Mother (see below), a readable and fascinating autobiography by a plural wife and mother. Shipp went East (at Brigham Young’s request) for medical school training and then became one of Utah’s main figures in maternal and public health. Now out of print – I would love to see someone reissue this book, it deserves a wider reading.
Annie Clark Tanner, Mormon Mother: An Autobiography (Signature, 1983). A firsthand account of the “next phase” of the Church, the decline of polygamy which also deals with post-Manifesto polygamy at the turn of the 20th century. It’s a great book to discuss women in the 1880-1930 era of Mormonism, and brings up important issues as an important outgrowth; highly suitable for undergraduate classes.
Maurine Carr Ward, Winter Quarters: The 1846-1848 Life Writings of Mary Haskin Parker Richards (Utah State U Press, 1996). Mary Richard’s journals and letters record a young woman’s rare, but richly detailed view of life in the temporary Mormon pioneer communities in Iowa.
Recently-Published Church Resources
Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2011)
Richard E. Turley Jr. and Brittany A. Chapman, eds., Women of Faith In the Latter Days: Volume One, 1775-1820 (Deseret Book, 2011)
Richard E. Turley Jr. and Brittany A. Chapman, eds., Women of Faith In the Latter Days: Volume Two, 1821-1845 (Deseret Book, 2012)
Additional Web Resources
fMh’s 2011-2012 series by Winterbuzz, “Remembering the Forgotten Women of Joseph Smith”
Read Original Sources
Minute Book of the Nauvoo Relief Society, published online as part of the Joseph Smith papers project
Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters, 1849-1869 contains writings and other content from a group of 49 overland pioneers on the Mormon trail (Harold B. Lee Library, BYU), including at least four women: Bathsheba Bigler Smith, Kate Dunlap, Lucia Eugenia Lamb Everett, and Emmeline B. Wells
The Women’s Exponent, the Mormon women’s newspaper published from 1872 to 1914 (succeeded by the Relief Society Magazine, see above). Digitized by BYU Libraries.
Young Women’s Journal, founded by Susa Young Gates and published 1889-1929 until it was “married to” the Improvement Era (yes, there was an actual wedding, cake and all). Digitized by BYU Libraries.
Mormon Missionary Diaries at BYU’s Lee Library includes sister missionary diaries too.
The Deseret News has a historic archive; the newspaper is searchable from 1850 to 1988 for free.
Augusta Joyce Crocheron, Representative Women of Deseret: A Book of Biographical Sketches (Salt Lake City: Graham, 1884) – a gold mine of late 19th century Utah Mormon women, largely in their own words. Now in the public domain, available full-text via Internet Archive.
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