Believe it or not there were and are Mormon feminists

Believe it or not there were and are Mormon feminists

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney at the second presidential debate—October 16th. (Barack Obama/Flickr)

During the presidential election there were a number of speculations about  Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s views on women, including horror stories circulated about  his “shameful” behavior while serving as an elder in the LDS church. This led some to assume (erroneously) that the LDS church as a whole is bad for women.  Here’s an example from  Jezebel:

“Let’s be honest: almost all religions historically treat women like shit. But Mormonism seems to keep its people on a particularly short leash.” Quoting The Daily Beast‘s Stacey Solie, the blog observes that most other faiths don’t “ordain every adult and adolescent male, so that the sacred authority extends so powerfully and thoroughly into the household.” Sunday services are always presided over by men, and all Mormon males are expected to serve a two-year mission.  (Women are allowed to serve on missions but not required to do so). Jezebel also rightly notes that “Mormons fought against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 90s and, according to the New York Times, played “an extraordinary role” in helping pass Proposition 8 in 2008.”

Of course the same could be said of the Catholic church, as well as some Protestant denominations that refuse to ordain women. Yet, this hasn’t prevented Catholic women — including nuns — from taking positions that are considered “radically feminist” by the Vatican.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Wikimedia

The LDS church also has a number of outspoken  feminists. The best known example for those of us in the women’s history field is Pulitzer-Prize winning Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, (pictured at left) who has written extensively about how Second Wave feminism shaped her life and that of other women in the Boston-area LDS community during the 1970s.  In her essay, “A Pail of Cream,” (The Journal of American History,  89: 43-47), Ulrich recalls:

“Many of us had grown up knowing about the heroism of pioneer ancestors who had participated in the epic trek across the United States, but few of us knew anything about early Mormon feminism. We did not know that Utah women voted and held office fifty years before women in the eastern United States, nor that polygamist wives and mothers had attended medical school, published newspapers, and organized cooperative enterprises.”

Foremost among these early feminist LDS publications was the Woman’s Exponent (below):

Woman’s Exponent

The byline reads, “The Rights of the Women of Zion” (i.e. LDS women) and “the rights of Women of all Nations.” In her book Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, Ulrich writes about the impact that this early Mormon feminist publication had on one of her colleagues:

“For Susan Kohler “the earth shifted” when browsing stacks at Harvard’s Widener Library “she stumbled upon bound volumes of a prosuffrage, pro-women’s rights periodical published in Utah from 1872 to 1914. To her astonishment, she realized that its creators were the same ostensibly well-behaved Mormon women she had revered as foremothers. She lugged the Women’s Exponent home from the library, one heavy volume at a time, sharing her discovery with other LDS feminists in the Boston area.”


In 1974, Kohler, Ulrich and other LDS feminists  launched Exponent II, “christening it ‘The Spiritual Descendant of the Women’s Exponent.’ The homemade cover, printed on cheap newsprint, borrowed a motto from nineteenth-century abolitionism, exploiting the double meanings of feminist and religious kinship to ask: ‘Am I Not a Women and a Sister?’ For these women, as for many others, the past became a guide to the future.”

One of the founding members of the publication is Carrel Hilton Sheldon, whom Mitt Romney tried to talk out of having an abortion, even though her physician and another LDS elder recommended that it was necessary to save her life. Sheldon later wrote, “At a time when I would have appreciated nurturing and support from spiritual leaders and friends . . I got judgment, criticism, prejudicial advice, and rejection.”

For Ulrich, feminist LDS role models were essential to her career: “I doubt that I would have had the courage to begin graduate school without the support of Latter-day Saint women living and dead,” she recalls.

A Midwife’s Tale

How fortunate not only for her but also for those of us in women’s history. As a historian of women’s health, I’m a big fan of her award-winning book  A Midwife’s Tale. I also love to show the  PBS documentary in my women’s history classes and use the companion website to show students how to do historical research.

Well-behaved women seldom make history. — Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Flickr

Ulrich is continuing her work on the history of midwifery, this time focusing on the diary of Patty Bartlett Sessions (right), a midwife who migrated from Maine to Salt Lake City with the great Mormon exodus of the 1840s.

In a post for the blog History@Work , Cathy Stanton gives this report on Ulrich’s plenary address for the the American Association for State and Local History conference in Salt Lake City last month. According to Stanton, Ulrich’s reading of Sessions’ diary “illuminates a paradoxical strand of 19th century feminism within the hyper-paternalistic Mormon sect, with all-female councils advocating energetically for health and clothing reform, education and voting rights for women (Utah women actually won the vote in 1869, but it was taken away again by the state after they exercised it—again, paradoxically—in favor of polygamy).  Ulrich is adept at linking these larger movements to individual experiences;  I could feel the audience responding emotionally, as I did, to her description of how, after many trials and tribulations (and the delivery en route of 52 babies) on the long journey from Illinois to Utah, the pioneers thought it fitting that it was Patty Sessions’ hands that caught the first male Mormon child born in the Promised Land.”

I wish I could have been there.  It’s great to have another reminder that faith and feminism are compatible. Hopefully Ulrich will publish this fascinating story soon so I can use this with the story of Martha Ballard for my women’s history class.

Featured image caption: I do not refer to myself as a housewife for the reason that I did not marry a house. Library of Congress

Heather Munro Prescott is Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University. She is the author of The Morning-After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.