Postmodern feminism and nineteenth century Mormonism

Sept_2006_mhcMartha Hughes Cannon (seen in image), is a wonderful and fascinating character in history. She was a doctor, educated at the University of Michigan. She was a State Senator (D), defeating her own husband who ran on the Republican ticket and became the first woman to hold such office in the United States. Perhaps most importantly to her, she was a mother.

For twenty years, Martha corresponded regularly with Barbara Replogle, a friend from the National School of Elocution and Oratory in Philadelphia. Her letters reveal the complexity born of polygamy, responsibility and federal prosecution. In one such letter, she encouraged Barbara to get married and expounded on motherhood:

When are you going to wed? After all, this to my mind, is the true state of womanhood neither, if properly managed should it interfere with her true advancement, in whatever sphere she might cast her talents. Tis not the bringing of noble spirits into the world — to me, a mother is woman’s brightest glory — that dwarfs talent, and retards her intellectual advancement but it is the multiplicity of household drudgery which only belongs to servants — and the conformity to the vile customs of modern society.

Barbara, even if we have to be poor let us not waste our talents in the cauldron of modern nothingness — but strive to become women of intellect, and endeavor to do some little good, while we live this protracted gleam called life. (1)

In the diaries of this time, references to servants are quite common. In the early 20th century, the Relief Society established an employment bureau to help women and young girls to find employment, often as domestic helpers. The idea that employees and technology can overtake the banal shackles of subjugation is fairly current in modern discourse. We’ll see how it goes this time.


  1. Martha Hughes Cannon to Barbara Replogh, 1 May, 1885. Martha Hughes Cannon Collection, 1883-1912. LDS Church Archives.


  1. In THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE, quite a bit of time is spent on the subject of simplifying housework to free women for other pursuits. I was assigned to read the book in high school home economics class, and it shaped my thoughts on the matter. I am morally opposed to ironing as a waste of time and energy.

    Unfortunately, I have doting relatives who sew or buy clothes for my children which are not permanent press (sigh). My husband occasionally buys a shirt which will not look great coming out of the dryer. Although I am the family laundress, if he buys a shirt like that, it is his problem. I do not iron.

    It is entirely possible to have a career wardrobe without ironing. It makes me sad when I sit in Relief Society and hear younger women talk about “keepoing up with ironing” as part of their homemaking challenges. It isn’t an inherent part of homemaking, and I don’t know why anyone would waste their time that way, barring a severe allergy to permapress fabric finishes.

  2. Of course, it’s interesting to note that the servants who would be assuming Martha Cannon’s housework drudgery were women — but women that didn’t count? I wonder how she defined poor as it would seem that like many of her contemporaries, Martha Cannon’s feminism was somehow bounded by class.

  3. I’m not sure where the “postmodern” from the title comes in. Kris offers a pretty classic—and valid—postmodern critique of the Cannon quote you present. Which is not to devalue Cannon’s feminism. Indeed, it’s quite laudable. I’m not so sure it’s postmodern, though.

    (Unless you’re somehow delivering a biting, phenomonological postmodern deconstruction of my own perspective on your perspective of Cannon’s perspective. If so, my hat’s off to you, friend.)

  4. TrailerTrash says:

    Yeah, I agree with the previous comments. There is nothing particularly “postmodern” about this quote. It reminds me of something I read in the Atlantic Monthly a few years ago, that the dirtly little secret of feminism is that its gains were made on the backs of brown women.

    Postmodern feminism is much more sensitive to this critique. While traditional feminism ignored the situations of class and race and seemed to define “women” as white, mid-to-upperclass, and heterosexual, postmodern feminism has expanded and incorporated possible solutions to this shortcoming.

  5. The rise of Jello a century ago is very connected to this. Domestic servants were becoming too expensive for the moderately prosperous to retain. Too many other employment options for young women had become available. (Even in the 1870s, for instance, my great-great-grandmother was working as a telegraph operator when she married.) Prosperous women were shifting untrained into the role of housewife. Thankfully there was Jello, a dessert that none can ruin. So, a prayer of thankfulness at your next ward social for the hands that were unburdened by those little packets.

  6. I’m not quite ready to give postmodern feminism a free pass on the class and race issue. Well educated white women are still much more likely to identify themselves as feminists than other women are.

  7. Mark, you’re right: that’s the central critique of the collection of movements sometimes described as third-world feminism. On the other hand, in comparison with the first-wave feminists of which Martha Hughes Cannon was an example, at least issues of race and class are on the table in current feminist discourse.

    Like some of the other commenters, I am unable to interpret either the title or the last paragraph of this post.

  8. Mark, I agree with you. It’s one of the great failures of feminism that the gains made by privileged, well-educated women so often require the contributions of poorly paid childcare workers and housekeepers. This was actually a large contributing factor to my decision to stay home with my children–I just couldn’t see what was “feminist” about paying another woman (probably not white or well-educated, possibly someone from another country who had to leave her own children to earn a wage to send back to them) so that I could spend time doing work I loved.

    However, the recognition of this problem isn’t especially new or postmodern. There’s a great 19th-century Mormon suffragist anthem, called “Help the Working Women”, sung to the tune of “O Ye Mountains High.” I can’t lay my hands on my copy right now, but the chorus is “Oh Sisters, dear Sisters, Queens in all lands! Many wrongs may you right, many burdens make light, by the strength of your lily-white hands.” The verses are so frank in their equation of whiteness and privilege that it’s uncomfortable for someone who has grown up with the easy postmodern euphemisms of “ethnicity” and “socioeconomic status” to sing them, but they are explicit and forceful about pointing out Mormon women’s gospel duty to pay attention to and ameliorate the plight of the poor working women and women of color who made their suffrage activity possible.

  9. As to the term postmodern, there is no question that Clark and Jim would convulse at the usage here. But as it relates to postmodern feminism…well, I’m just callin it as I sees it.

    TT, I remember that Atlantic article (How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement), it was pretty good. I will say that I don’t see anything particularly worse about domestic work for crap-lousy pay than manual labor that men often do in similar demographic segments (I do suspect that the women get paid less, though I haven’t seen any studies).

    Still, Martha rocks.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    I interpreted the postmodern aspect of the letter as not having to do with the reliance on servants, but relating to being able to extol the virtues of both mothershood and an intellectual life, which feels very much like third wave feminism to me.

  11. TT, you’re thinking of Caitlin Flanagan’s piece in the Atlantic. I’d hardly submit that as evidence of a more sensitive present-day feminism, however (please, please can we stop using the word “postmodern”? it’s so wrong in this context; *only* use postmodern in reference to aesthetics, please, for me?), since Flanagan inspires an inarticulate frothing rage in most feminists.

    What are the new possible solutions you’ve encountered? I haven’t heard anything beyond excoriating do-nothing dads, and this is an unworkable large-scale solution, in my view.

  12. (oops, should have refreshed, sorry to pile on about the Flanagan piece.)

  13. “Postmodern feminism” is the self-description of one component of current feminist discourse. While the perspective is remarkably diverse and interally contradictory, something approximating a unifying theme might be an emphasis on separating anatomical concepts and concepts of identity.

  14. TrailerTrash says:

    Though I don’t see any reason to restrict the use of the term “postmodern” to aesthetics, especially since this is a later usage of the term, I agree that it is somewhat vague. My usage here was to speak of the contemporary critique of first and second wave feminism does come from what RT calls “Third-world feminism”, as well as someone like Judith Butler. Both of these can be called “postmodern” inasmuch as they call into question the modernist notion of the subject.

    Since in practice most feminism is still “second wave”, I agree that one cannot claim that feminism is any better on these points. However, the growing awareness and critique of second wave assumptions is already leading to changes in the movement.

  15. the gains made by privileged, well-educated women so often require the contributions of poorly paid childcare workers and housekeepers

    Maybe the answer to this is to get the men/husbands to do some of the domestic work for crap-lousy pay. Or for free!

  16. I’m just a little troubled by the denigration of menial labor that is implicit in the Flanagan article, or in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel [sic — shouldn’t that be “Nickeled”?] and Dimed in America–which I quit reading when she went on an extended rant about the inherent wrongness of hiring someone else to clean up after yourself.

    First, hiring a maid or nanny or gardener or chauffeur gives opportunity to persons who may otherwise be unable to work. And that work done well can be ennobling to the worker. (Remember, Henry V promised those with him at Agincourt that “this day will gentle [your] condition” — and is there any “work” that is more menial than being an archer or pikeman in a medieval army?)

    Second, we should not let the tyranny of the market (and its assignment of value to work through wage/salary scales) confuse us. The pay that someone receives for work is unrelated to its inherent value. So, the fact that a nanny or maid is paid less than a corporate lawyer shouldn’t stop us hiring that nanny or maid, if that’s your choice.

    Besides, who’s to say how some other person should fill the measure of his or her creation?

  17. I think it’s entirely reasonable to expect working husbands/fathers to iron their work clothes and pack their own lunches. It’s the least we can do — and should be considered part of our job.

    Of course, in my case, it means that I end up wearing the permanent press parts of my wardrobe much more often than the items that require ironing. Unlike Naismith, I have no one to blame but myself — I have a weakness for dress shirts with a high cotton content.

  18. Steve Evans says:

    ECS: “domestic work for crap-lousy pay”

    You been watching Battlefield Earth again, ECS? You talk like a Psychlo. Either that, or you have been in communication with our future alien overlords. In any case, I welcome them with open arms, and trust in their magnanimity.

  19. heh. I have this image of Billy Crystal chasing Rosalynde around the house saying “postmodern! postmodern! postmodern!”

  20. Mark B., you may find part of this Evan Kirchhoff post rings true, the last four paragraphs that end with a proposed Kerry campaign slogan “Minimum Wage Ain’t Nothing But A Fancy Term For Lazy”.

  21. J. must be the Psychlo. I’m just quoting him :)

  22. I wonder how much of Martha’s freedom to go to medical school, etc, came from the fact that she was a plural wife. So there were other wives at home to take care of some of the drudgery, not just servants. Not that I am defending polygamy at all. However, I don’t think that a married woman, wealthy or not, would have been very likely to go off to medical school alone at that time, if she were the only wife, no matter how many servants were at home.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    paula, that was indeed both then and now one of the arguments advocates of polygamy made for it.

  24. “Both of these can be called “postmodern” inasmuch as they call into question the modernist notion of the subject.”

    The modernist notion of subject is Cartesian and I don’t see how this calls it into question at all.

    But I’ll not go down that tangent since it is a fact that “postmodern” has become so abused that I go out of my way never to use it. I’d suggest that feminism has as well which is why I don’t understand these attempts to salvage the term. It has so much negative connotation to so many people now and has so diverse of meanings that it seems like one would be better off using a different term to name ones position. To combine two of the most abused terms, “postmodern” and “feminism,” to convey a point probably isn’t the wisest. (grin)

  25. MarkB: First, hiring a maid or nanny or gardener or chauffeur gives opportunity to persons who may otherwise be unable to work.

    While in theory that’s true, in practice it tends to creation menial labour jobs at very low pay which tends to keep women in the problem situations they find themselves in. i.e. poverty.

    Certainly a job is better than no job. But ideally we ought be moving women into reasonably paying jobs. Especially women who are often the sole provider and are raising a family. I’d add that the effects on the family are such that it tends to keep the children from being as upwardly mobile as possible.

    Further it seems that in practice these jobs are fulfilled by illegal immigration where the women in question aren’t paying taxes, don’t have rights and other such things that I feel are necessary for both their own rights as well as the general rights of citizens. Others might disagree but I just don’t think it ends up being quite the win-win you suggest.

    Certainly compared to what some of these women face in their native countries it is a win. But in terms of absolutes of the sorts “feminists” are generally concerned with it’s not a win.

  26. Rosalynde: it’s so wrong in this context; *only* use postmodern in reference to aesthetics, please, for me

    How about metaphysics, language, and epistemology? (grin)

  27. LOL, Kristine! Hand him a package of chocolate graham cracker crumbs to spill on my floors, and you’ve got Rosalynde’s Surefire Instant Insanity Scenario.

    TT, I’m wouldn’t put up a stink if somebody called Judith Butler postmodern, but I prefer post-structuralist for high theory historicist-materialist projects (yes, I know this was invented for the continentals, and that Foucault rejected it). Postmodern is mostly useless as a heuristic for critical theory, since it puts folks like Derrida and Althusser in the same basket (**shudders, reaches gasping for Raymond Williams**). On the other hand, it seems to me that “postmodern” works fairly well to identify a mostly coherent aesthetic moment in the 70s – 90s, particularly in architecture and urban planning.

    In any case, I think Judith Butler’s influence on mainstream third wave feminism approaches nil. My impression from the fairly introductory reading I did in grad school is that the same is true of third world feminism, though I am willing to take correction on that point.

  28. Kevin, I know that was given as a reason for polygamy, which is why I put the disclaimer in. My friends and I used to joke that polygamy wouldn’t be so bad as long as we got to be the wife that went off to school, etc, while the other did the drudgery. Out of curiousity, I took a look at the census entries for Angus Cannon in 1880 and 1900. (The 1890 census was destroyed by fire.) In 1880, there weren’t any servants in the household. In 1900, he was not living with Martha, but there were four Cannon households on the same street and each had a servant.I didn’t spend a lot of time on this, but no one who clearly matches Martha was there in the index. In 1910 Martha was living with three of her older children… and a servant. So probably polygamy wasn’t the only factor for Martha’s relative freedom. But I still think it was a major factor.

  29. I feel almost grateful that I have almost no idea what postmodern means and therefore am totally unannoyed (and uninformed) by this title. I do however think that Martha sounds like a pretty cool lady. As always, Great Post J!

  30. TrailerTrash says:

    >Judith Butler’s influence on mainstream third wave feminism approaches nil.

    Really??? Maybe we just hang in different circles, but she is pretty much a rock star around here so much that there simply is no “third-wave” without her.

    Who do you think is third-wave???

  31. TrailerTrash says:

    Clark: The modernist notion of subject is Cartesian and I don’t see how this calls it into question at all.

    The subject which this new kind of feminism critiques is that of a unified, essential subject, precisely the Cartesian “I”. Borrowing on the critiques of the modern subject in structuralist and post-structuralist thought, this new feminism challenges the category of ‘woman’ as an essentialized, unified, stable subjectivity.

  32. Hi TT— I wonder whether we might be talking from opposite sides of the media/academy divide. I haven’t looked closely at the newest stuff from the women’s studies departments since, let’s see, 1999; I’ve been more plugged into feminist bloggers and the stuff that gets disseminated in media outlets. So I’ve heard third-wave feminism associated with lipstick and girlie varieties, with choice feminism—basically with the younger women who loathe second-wavers like Linda Hirschman and Katha Pollit. I confess that I take a rather dim view of this bunch. It seems to me that they combine all the left’s worst habits of mind, and that their position is based, in fact, on the crudest possible version of the old transcendent-unified-agent self: I choose it, therefore it’s okay. Bodies that Matter is unlikely to sit on their collective nightstand.

    Who do you think of as third-wave?

  33. TrailerTrash says:

    Thanks for sharing with me! I think that the variety of third-wavers is one more example of the diversity and lack of consensus among feminists (which isn’t inherently bad). I looked at the wikipedia entry on Third-wave feminism, and I didn’t know who any of the people that it talked about were.

    The people that I usually associate with the third wave are queer theorists with feminist sensibilities, like Butler, Judith Halberstam, and those feminists who have been influenced by these people, but who operate in the specific subfield of religion, like Amy Hollywood.

    I admit that I don’t keep tabs on everything that is going on in the feminist movement. I have my pet thinkers (in a certain sense, we all do) and sort of stick to the conversation that is going on around them.

  34. I thought of this post on Martha Hughes Cannon when NPR reported this morning on the French candidates. A leading contender is Segolene Royal, a socialist and mother of four (ages 22 to 13). Her civil pact co-registrant and the father of her children, Francois Hollande, is also a presidential aspirant and chairman of the socialist party, but is now overshadowed by Royal.

%d bloggers like this: