Mormon missionary history typically focuses on the histories of the white men who traveled from the gold fields of California to proselytize among the native Hawaiians or among Australians living in Perth and Melbourne. Although these histories can be engaging forays into Mormonism, my research recently has focused on the men and women who lived in Laie in an attempt to avoid American anti-polygamy legislation. Doing so has been a fascinating glimpse into the dynamics of the early Mormon community. I have learned, for example, that Susa Young Gates loved a bit of salacious gossip, even though she often repented of it afterward. The women of the mission responded bitterly towards her, writing in one case that that woman could “talk” in spite of being told that no one on the mission cared to listen to that “rubbish.”
What has been most fascinating, however, has been reading about their various pregnancies and labors. Like a lot of young women who have never given birth, I find the process a bit overwhelming to think about. In the eleventh grade, I watched a video of a live birth in Human Anatomy & Physiology. My first thought was, “Dear Lord! It looks like a mucousy alien is emerging from her vagina.” My second thought was, “I am never having sex.” Pregnancy in the nineteenth century was more dangerous and potentially disruptive than it is today, when improved sanitation and lowered infant mortality makes even the delivery of mucous-covered aliens relatively safe. The maternal death rate in 1915, the first year for which we have reliable data, was 607.9 deaths per 100,000 births. Compare that with just 13.3 deaths per 100,000 births in 2006 to an understanding how dangerous childbirth can be. Women, plagued by frequent pregnancy, turned to antiseptic douches to try to prevent conception. These douches included mixes of water, salt, and sometimes, even Lysol.
The white women who lived in Laie had similar experiences with pregnancy and labor as their non-Mormon sisters. In her diary, Dean described being constantly tired as a result of her pregnancy and frequently in bed because of pain. On January 22nd, 1888, she wrote that she had taken ill with the “cholera morbus” and “hardly sleept” and had “had belly ache and diarrhea all day.” Likewise, Julina L. Smith found herself exhausted by her pregnancy and work in the kitchen. Most of these pregnancies ended in a child, but some could end in heartbreak. Three days before she spent the day in bed with stomach pain and diarrhea, Dean “had such fearful pains in the top of [her] stomach that [she] could not move in bed for hours.” That same day, her friend Rebecca delivered a ten-pound child, which died according to Dean because of carelessness. I haven’t been able to find out whether or not Dean’s child lived. Her diary stops a few days after her stomach pain and no child is listed in the Family Search database. It is possible that she had a miscarriage soon after her diary ended, and that the pain of her pregnancy became too much for her to bear. Dean had already lost children and had spent most of her diary mourning what could have been. If she had had a miscarriage, it is possible that she could not bring herself to write any more about her life in Laie.
As we look forward to Mother’s Day, we should think about women like Dean, Gates, and Smith, and the difficulties they faced as mothers. Although we idolize mothers now, it could be a dangerous and heartbreaking in nineteenth-century America and remains so for many women living in poverty throughout the world. Birth control and increased medical knowledge have made motherhood something that women have control over and have decreased the maternal death rate. As a result, as we celebrate Mother’s Day, I think we should also thank the men and women who made contraception and women’s health care more readily available; thus, allowing Lysol to be something that was used to clean tables rather than prevent children.
 For an example discussion of birth control, see my friend Jacqueline’s blog: http://nursingclio.wordpress.com/2012/05/10/lysol-the-pill-and-the-duggars-contraception-and-controversy-in-american-history/