Updated to now include video of the lecture.
Sponsored by Sunstone and Friends of the Marriott Library at the University of Utah
Relief Society sisters now have a new resource—a compact history of the Relief Society called Daughters of My Kingdom. The new manual, which is to be used from time to time for lessons given the first Sunday of each month, is not only unusual for its focus on women but for its chronological organization. Most Church manuals are organized thematically, offering little scope for discussing change over time. Despite its uplifting narrative, this manual may require a new set of skills. As teachers of women’s history know, you can’t just “add women and stir.”
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich taught her first Relief Society lesson more than fifty years ago, when she was an undergraduate attending a student ward at the University of Utah. She began teaching women’s history at the college level in 1975 when she was a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire. She is the author of many books and articles on early American history and women’s history and is now completing her first book-length work in Mormon history, “A House Full of Females: Family and Faith in Nineteenth-century Mormon Diaries.” She is 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University.
Laurel looks a vision in blue (sorry, no bearing whatsoever on the lecture, I just think she looks really nice, although Barbara said, it’s more of a purple). The auditorium is about half full (edited to add, now mostly full!). I see Ardis E. Parshall (full disclosure, I got to ride up to the lecture with her! How jealous are you?) and got to hug ECS. Mary Ellen just announced it will start a bit later due to parking concerns. Barbara Jones Brown is here and many others that I probably should know, but don’t.
Ok, after Mary Ellen introduced her (using the above summary) Laurel begins.
She hasn’t really written her talk, but agreed to have it filmed knowing that she could do a lot of ad-libbing, it’s informal, but heartfelt, a spontaneous reaction to a recent event, as she will explain.
She wants to start out by saying “I have a testimony of Relief Society.”
“I not only have a testimony of Relief Society, but I have a testimony of history.” Her life was transformed from reading the 19th century version of the Exponent. It had articles that were more feminist then what was going around her (in the 60s, if I’m not mistaken).
She’s not prepared to talk about her forthcoming book, but she is planning on talking about the new Relief Society history: Daughters in My Kingdom.
It does three things that sets it apart from other recent church materials. As a historian, she can find lots of problems similar to how she finds problems in any popular history or textbook that she picks up.
What she finds important:
1. Why most LDS instructional manuals are organized thematically, this is organized chronologically, “it puts history in the curriculum.”
2. By focusing on the Relief Society, it puts women in the curriculum, like other organizations, the LDS Church has also had a problem of having “women-less history.” This is really important, DIMK is an entire manual on women.
3. It names the authors of the book. (A smaller point, she concedes).
“The only problem, it is supposed to be used in the first Sunday of Relief Soceity, I think it should be used in Priesthood Meeting.”
Women should also use Derr’s book Women of Covenant, read the Relief Society Minutes recently made available by the JSPP (“if you haven’t done this already,” Ulrich says, “go home tonight and do it!”) and pick up the new Women of Faith: Volume 1, available tomorrow.
Ulrich pulls open the book and goes right to the section on polygamy. She explains that this is pathbreaking, as many, many manual never mentions it. She tells a story of her granddaughter who had no idea until Ulrich brought it up accidentally, and said “Oh, that’s what my friend was talking about” after Ulrich explained what it was about. Ulrich explains that young people and new converts can feel lied to when they know nothing about polygamy and find out from other sources. Ulrich is excited that DIMK brings it up and that it describes that we should revere the women who faithfully lived polygamy, which was hard, and who faithfully stopped living polygamy, which was also hard. Ulrich says that it is a significant step that they opened up this “can of worms” of polygamy.
She turns to talking about history and explains, “if things were not are the same as they are now, then they might not stay the same as they way are now. History is the study of change. Any revolutionary movement begins with an engagement of history.”
When you look at the history of polygamy and the history of the blacks and the priesthood, these are profound questions.
Is God’s ideal of the family the 19th century idea of the family?
Was the 19th century idea of the family a temporary response and the nuclear family today is God’s ideal of the family?
Once when talking about polygamy, Ulrich made a selections of quotes on the family from the prophets and the sisters were surprised to see that some of them were contradictory.
Another time she was teaching a lesson, she used one of the examples from the RS minutes when the women disagreed with the men leaders and “the men left the room so the women could have their own voice.” Again, the sisters she was teaching were surprised.
Sidenote, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich first published an article in Seventeen magazine, but her second piece was in Relief Society Magazine. She tells a story of another lesson she was teaching where she brought out the Relief Society Magazine and the women there longed to have a magazine that was directed just to them.
She mentions Dialogue! When she was editing the women’s issue of Dialogue, one of the editors criticized it as too much like the Relief Society Magazine and not hard hitting enough. Ulrich was furious. She figured he was making fun of women and wanted her to think like men.
As historian of the everyday, Ulrich is worried that to often, people idealize women into nothing. She jokes that another saying that will not be made into a bumper sticker is “The real drama is in the humdrum.” Women want to be heard, to have voices, in many different ways.
Ulrich now points to the timeline in the back, she thinks it’s a nice overview, where women can get a snapshot of the Relief Society History. She points out some things that you might not know (check it out in the link above, I bet you’ll learn something new).
She turns to the last page of the timeline to show that the history from1969 to the present is the history of the disappearance of the Relief Society, the disappearance of the Relief Society Magazine, and the disappearance of the funds from Relief Society, now from tithing, but controlled by the bishop. And the Relief Society will now study the same as the Priesthood. Ulrich jokes that from these priesthood manuals, “these men had no wives (or wives, in the plural)” at least from what you read in the manual.
Ulrich laments that women used to “creatively create” so many different things. And she likens what happened in the church also happened in the outside society, explaining that “when men and women are integrated, women tend to disappear.” She hurriedly explains that she’s not calling for a segregation like the 19th century, but when women and men are in a hierarchy, women disappear and we have to figure out a way to work as full partners.
Citing back to the “dismal” timeline from the last page of DIMK, she explains that she doesn’t believe that amazing things were/are not happening in the Relief Society, but” we’re not going to find it using the conventional methods, so write your history, find out about history and go out and make some history.”
Questions and Comments
1. How can we interpret the advent of this new book?
A lack of women history has taken women out of the church, but Ulrich takes DIMK as a real compliment to the amateur and professional historians. It’s a beginning.
2. If you were to sit down with Sister Beck, what would you say?
I’d say “thanks for doing this”…probably. It depends on what she wanted, professional historians always have complaints. I could say “Really, there is so much more in the 1970s” and maybe she’d say “It’s fine!” But I don’t think I’d be invited. (Laughter) but I would welcome such an invitation.
3. Back to polygamy, I believe many women feel only one step away from polygamy, theologically (temple-speaking) what do you think of that?
No one has dealt with the theological issue of the polygamy. It reminds me very much of the blacks and the priesthood. The 132 section is still in there. There is a whole range of what this all means. I don’t know where it’s going to go. I think it’s the theological issues of polygamy is why it’s very difficult to talk about this. Let me quote my wise old grandfather: “There’s going to be a lot of readjusting in the millennium.” (Laughter)
4. *Something about international versions of the book*
Sorry, I missed this question but the answer went on about how many different languages it would be translated in, and someone else answered around 20 (and three at the end of the year, English, Spanish, Portuguese)
5. A personal question: How did you weather the (ERA) storm of hearing things over the pulpit that conflicted with you inner moral compass?
I lived in Massachusetts! So I didn’t hear those things over the pulpit. Exponent tried to respond to some of those things at the time. I heard Sonia Johnson talk before she was excommunicated, I felt tremendous rapport with her. I’ll tell a personal story I’ve never told before. When this was in the press and there was a threat that she would be excommunicated, I walked into the history department (I think I had finished college, I think I was teaching by that point) and a colleague said “I thought you’d be down in Virginia defending your sister.” I responded “Mormons don’t excommunicate people for their opinions!” I was pretty naive then.
6. Given the problems of separate spheres which gave us powerful women in the 19th century and integration made women more invisible, what is your solution?
I’m a historian, I just look at the past. But I think we need both! We need similarities and differences. I have faith that the church, especially the younger generation, is doing this.
I don’t think we could have individual publications again, but that’s more because of everything being online, the blogs (shout-out) is changing everything regarding publication.
7. I write the fMh posts on the wives of Joseph Smith (Winterbuzz) and when I read DIMK, I was hurt, because it felt so sanitized. What are you feelings about this?
The question of whether a manual that short and that sent-everywhere can handle that. A lot is going to depend on how that material is going to be used. It’s an invitation to explore history. In some places, that will be extraordinarily rich. Ulrich then talks about the new Women of Faith series that comes from the diaries and stories of women, “it’ll be interesting what comes from that. This will be a contrast from what is officially published by the church, which is so conservative.” She then talks about Romania Pratt, a woman who went to medical school in the late 19th century, and how hard it was for her to go to the East and was looked down upon as a Mormon, and then came back and was looked down upon for going to be a doctor. “And yet she continued. And to just celebrate her accomplishments, doesn’t capture that. And when I wrote her biography, I found that she left her kids with her to go east to be a doctor. When she got home, they didn’t recognize her. That was really something. She did that with the financial support of the Relief Society. So I then I thought about a contemporary woman who left the Philippines and left her children, to become a nanny in the United States. I had a whole different perspective after telling that story.
So I totally agree with you. We need the textures of these stories.
8. Whenever I express my fear or frustration as women of church, it comes across as a challenge. So how do I make history without being trampled? What tools do you used to not be seen as a threat?
I am a threat. (laughter) No one can make me feel second-class. I come from a long line of apostates and dissenters. And I’ve worked this though. I mean I really love the church. I’m sorry if I’m disappointing you. But I do, I generally love it. When I say that I have a testimony of the Relief Society, some of my most important experiences have come with women. That’s one of my tools. Building a network of support. I’ve been really fortunate to have that in my family. I have not been rejected by family. I think it’s terribly painful when people are, and that can happen. I won’t tell you that I haven’t had moments of concern and angry. But the most important tool is to think that there isn’t any women in charge of my life, and my faith. That was a defining moment for me. If I make a decision and it’s wrong, I am responsible for that. I’ve found that the things that are real and important for me in the church, transcend these issues, but understand that doesn’t happen with everybody. I don’t tell people to stay in an institution that is driving them crazy. Part of what helped me was having an education with Lowell Bennion at the University of Utah Institute that taught me the priorities in religion. My priorities are to be honest, be the same person that I am at church and the work. And to be as loving as I possible can. Maybe that’s the sermon this Sunday evening.