It’s that time again. The latest issue of the Journal of Mormon History is rolling out to a mailbox near you (if you’re lucky enough to be a subscriber–if not–what are you waiting for?).
Ron Romig’s article provides a fascinating biographical look at Alexander Hale Smith, a son of Joseph and Emma. From the conclusion: “Alexander seemed to instinctively understand his own and his family’s special identity. But Alex never allowed his heritage to serve as a justification for privilege. Rather, by adopting and living out the core teachings of the Restoration movement as his own, Alexander conscientiously walked a path of exceptional sacrifice and service to others. Acting his part in a purposeful story, Alexander H. Smith devoted his life to the realization of a greater good.”
Next comes historian Catherine A. Brekus’ Tanner Lecture. I’ll be spending considerable space on her article compared to others and that reflects my interest in the subject and my feeling about its importance. I heartily encourage all to read it and am interested to hear specific reactions to it.
She argues that Mormon women have been passed over in modern studies of women and religion (and that the excellent studies which do exist have largely failed to impact the wider field) and this is due to the problems scholars have experienced in discussing Mormon women as historical agents and in how historical agency is defined. When Mormon women have been noticed, historians “outside of the LDS community” have taken stereotypes about women as degraded and exploited by polygamy at face value while others, in the interest of defending Mormon women from such characterizations, have overstated Mormon women’s agency and independence. “The result is that we are left with a fractured picture of Mormon women as either deluded, downtrodden slaves or fiercely independent matriarchs” (61).
Here I’ll note that Chris recently posted on matters of agency. Brekus notes that in historical contexts,
…’agency’ today has become virtually synonymous with emancipation, liberation, and resistance. When historians write about agency, they often imagine an individual in conflict with his or her society who self-consciously seeks greater freedom…an agent is someone who resists the constraints of the social structure, who challenges social norms to create something new. Given these implicit definitions of agency as freedom, empowerment, and intentionality, it is not surprising that the few women who appear in American religious history textbooks tend to be pioneering female leaders who self-consciously challenged the restrictions on their authority: white, mainstream Protestant women like Catharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Frances Willard. Because historians have implicitly defined agency against structure, they have found it hard to imagine women who accepted religious structures as agents. This is why there are so few Mormon women in American religious history textbooks–or for that matter, Catholic women, Orthodox Jewish women, or Fundamentalist women…scholars in search of a “useable past” have rarely been interested in studying women who seem to have accepted female subordination (71-72).
Brekus then notes that despite much excellent work, “Instead of broadening the definition of female agency, they [historians of Mormon women] have tried to fit Mormon women’s lives into an emancipatory paradigm by demonstrating their subjects’ engagement in feminist politics…While Mormon women’s historians have made a compelling case for why LDS women should be included in discussions of the suffrage movement, they have not explained why historians should care about the large numbers of ordinary women who never openly challenged male authority in the family, state, or church.”
Brekus notes more recent studies of Mormon polygamy that present a very positive view, that sister wives developed intense personal bonds, that more women had more time to pursue degrees and have access to child care and leisure time in a polygamous system, and generally that polygamy was liberating rather than oppressive. Central to these approaches is a vigorous challenge to the notion that Mormon women were forced or coerced into polygamy. However, Brekus notes, these approaches do not take into account the complexity of historical agency. ”By pointing out that polygamy encouraged women to become more independent, historians have helped to dismantle nineteenth-century caricatures of Mormon women as ‘slaves’ or concubines. on the other hand, this positive interpretation of polygamy has also had the effect of minimizing or even ignoring the structural constraints on women’s agency…Mormon women were free to make choices, but they exercised that freedom within a religious environment that strongly encouraged them to cultivate the supposedly ‘feminine’ values of piety, self-denial, and obedience” (74-75).
Indeed, as Brekus notes, polygamy taught “traditionally feminine virtues like chastity, submission, and especially self-sacrifice” (76-77).
“Given the controversies surrounding polygamy, it is not surprising that Mormon historians have struggled to find the right tone to use when writing about plural wives. Yet their difficulties suggest that they need to think more deeply about their understanding of women’s agency. In terms of its treatment of women, the field of Mormon history stands at a crossroads. While previous generations of historians virtually ignored women, recent scholars have been so determined to portray women as historical agents that they have sometimes exaggerated their freedom to make choices about their lives. Although there is no simple solution to this conceptual problem, one way forward it to try to craft a new model of agency–a model that recognizes both the capacity of ordinary women to create change and the structural constraints on their agency” (77-78).
Brekus offers seven points that she hopes would characterize such an approach:
1) “a new definition of agency should recognize that agency includes the reproduction of social structures as well as the transformation of them.”
2) “we should reconsider the implicit association of agency with freedom and emancipation.”
3) “in addition to broadening our definition of agency to include the reproduction of social structures, we should also rethink the close association between agency and intentionality.” Here she notes Susanna Morrill’s work.
4) “a new definition of agency should also include the insight that agency should always be seen as relational and social rather than simply individual.”
5) “agency must be understood as existing on a continuum. Historians tend to write as if their subjects either have agency or they do not.”
6) “we should also recognize that agency is always shaped by cultural norms and structural constraints.”
7) “Finally, we should remember that agency takes place within structures as well as against them.”
Though not professing to have all the answers, Brekus’ hope is that these approaches will lead scholars to a deeper understanding not only of Mormon women, but of women in religion generally.
I think this is a really important piece that has a lot to chew on. The ideas she presents about agency have wider implications for other areas apart from women’s history, including histories of race and histories involving other marginalized groups, etc. I wonder if some of these issues aren’t a little more widespread than she presents, for example, the idea that agency operates within societal constraints, etc. All in all, I like this piece because it describes and contextualizes histories of Mormon women, but also goes beyond that and shows how studies of Mormon women can have an impact on the larger fields of women’s history and religious history.