Review: Elizabeth Pinborough, editor, “Habits of Being: Mormon Women’s Material Culture”

ImageTitle: Habits of Being: Mormon Women’s Material Culture
Editor: Elizabeth Pinborough
Publisher: Exponent II
Genre: Personal Essays
Year: 2012
Pages: 113
Binding: Softcover
Price: 18.00 plus shipping (Available in a second run here!)

Reading underneath my great-grandmother Florence Shepherd Warburton’s pastel paintings in the old rock Warburton home in the tiny town of Grouse Creek, Utah, I connected with Habits of Being—this book of personal essays from women looking longingly at ancestral artifacts for links to those women, some known, some unknown, who came before.

It was a glorious experience, made even more poignant by the fact that it was Memorial Day, one that made me want to write my own essays about my own ancestors, about the women and men who furnished, occupied, and beautified the very surroundings in which I sat. And if there is anything I wish to impart in this review, it’s the need for women and men to search out connections to their past and write them up, then archive them safely. In fact I’ll bold that part, just in case that’s the only sentence you read.

Habits of Being is a lovely example of how to write personal essays based on material objects. Most essays told stories about the people and the objects, peaking at a testimony of sorts when the object became an almost living reminder of the now-dead ancestor. A few went off this script, however, notably Margerat Toscano’s story poem, Karen Rosenbum’s letters from her grandparents, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s meticulous descriptions like “The yellow cover, which measures 9 x 10 3/8 inches, feels a bit like construction paper.” (I had to laugh because I started reading Ulrich’s essay before knowing who wrote it but stopped a paragraph in and said aloud, “This is a historian, isn’t it?”)

A few other things I realized in reading Habits of Being. Liz Pinborough pulled together a fascinating list of Mormon women authors, from a wide faith spectrum. I don’t know if this was intentional, but it was a beautiful, faith-promoting thing to see them all pretty much testify about the power of family history touching their lives. I realize that this is not just a Mormon thing, but it’s pretty influential in Mormon thought, and to be pithy, the Mormon threads weave through Habits of Being, resulting in a colorful tapestry of testimony.

Also, I am not going to name my favorite essays, because really, each one is magnificent in its own way, but I did love Michelle Glauser’s thoughts on “women’s autobiographical acts—anything from historical spirituality-seeking journal writing to the Tweeting, blogging, and Facebook status updates of today. Though some characteristics of women’s autobiographical acts haven’t changed, these modern forms seem more exciting; they have bright colors and pictures and videos, and links.” This touches on some interesting record-keeping comparisons that are being (but continue to need to be) explored.

Thirdly, I started to wonder about the powerful pull of material culture for women. I do believe that many men feel this same magnetism toward certain objects and places, but acknowledge the problem of women’s voices lacking in the historical record. It does seem logical to search out objects as documents of our female progenitors’ existence if actual documents are sparse. But is this pull getting stronger as women’s voices seem to be getting louder? I don’t know. As Liz Pinborough says in her introduction: “We hope this book will teach us to see Mormon women in new ways and help us to impart new ways of interacting with our personal and institutional histories.”

Note that I haven’t told you anything about the objects portrayed within Habits of Being, which is mean, because since the book is sold out, it may be a bit difficult to get your hands on a copy. But I’d challenge you to uncover these treasures. They come to life in the pages of Habits of Being through the stories, descriptions, and then delightfully, the photos (many in color) of both the objects and the ancestral women to whom they belonged.

Since the book isn’t online and is sold out, I will kindly point you in a few directions of essays that are similar in theme to those found in Habits of Being:

“Family Scripture” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Dialogue Journal Personal Voices essay

“Art and Artifacts, the Utility of Memory” by Emily S., Feminist Mormon Housewives

“The Mundane Details of our Life Stories” by EmilyCC, The Exponent Blog


  1. We have my husband’s great grandmother’s folding rocking chair (she was such a tiny woman!) and I saved my mom’s sweater and my dad’s engraved flashlight along with a couple of other things to give to my kids as reminders of their grandparents. None of these things has any particular monetary value but the memories they invoke are priceless. I will try to scavenge a copy of this book somewhere. It sounds like something I would enjoy.

  2. I’m sad I didn’t preorder a copy. I was planning on picking one up at MHA.

  3. Thank you for the review, Emily. I love the picture of you beneath the paintings. Perhaps you could contribute an essay about them for the next (hoped-for) printing?…

  4. Margaret says:

    If you really want one, there are still a few copies left reserved for donors of $125 or more to Exponent II. :)

  5. My complete essay can be found here (the abridged version is in Habits of Being):

  6. I’m not really into family history (which I realize is horrible, I’m sorry, I’m a terrible human being), but I do tend to hold on to things just because they belonged to someone I loved or someone I loved gave them to me. I have a chartreuse melamine (melamine!) platter that is cracked and a pad of personalized post-it notes (post-it notes!) that I’m holding on to just because they were my mother’s. None of my kids ever met her. This reminds me I should be writing more about her so my memories don’t die with the melamine platter that is destined to be thrown out once I’m dead. :)

    Thanks for the review and the links.

  7. Thanks for the review, Emily. I’m glad to see Elizabeth and our generous contributors recognized for all their hard work!

    (And, seriously, everyone should check out Anita’s complete essay–it broke our hearts to have to shorten it.)

  8. I’m glad you liked what I wrote. Having it in the midst of pieces written by so many really great women made me feel a bit insecure about it.

    I really enjoyed seeing what other women felt connected them to their beloved ancestors. It’s funny, because I’m all about digitization of everything and hardly any leftover physical items. And yet, I understand the sentimental connection that comes with those things. The skirt I mentioned in my article (that I made out of my grandma’s umbrella) can be seen here:

    For those looking for a copy of the book, there’s one at the Church History Library. See? The call number is M243.8 H116 2012. First one there wins! Enjoy!

  9. Michelle, that skirt is too cute! I love the purple satin. You are one clever and creative gal.

  10. Is there going to be another printing? $125 is out of my price range right now, but I would love to read this, and then that copy to my mother.

    She has written dozens of personal essays, some of which have been published in journals or anthologies here in Oregon. She mostly tells the stories of our non-Mormon pioneer ancestors who came out west in the same time period as the Mormon migration.

    My mother became the pioneer of her family in joining the church, and her essays often resonate with the struggles of pioneer ancestors, the women and men who often left extended families behind to follow the wagon ruts to their new home.

    While her brother and parents still have contact, it is always strained with her brother and she has very little hope that they will ever be able to have anything but superficial interactions. I can count the number of times I have seen him, in the 35 years since I was born, on my fingers. On the other hand, my grandparents love what the church has done for my mother and her children, but they have a hard time separating the abusive nature of my father and the priesthood, even though my stepfather is a fabulous example of an LDS husband and father.

    Please, if it going to have a second run, let BCC readers know so that we know to pre-order when we can!

  11. Michelle and Lisa, thanks for the links, although now I am even more disappointed not to have a copy!

  12. .

    Sold out? Really?

    Thank goodness I preordered . . . .

  13. Hooray! They are doing a second printing! Click here for information on how to order.

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