The Women’s Pull

Some of our groups had only 4 girls, and the carts had metal on them and were very heavy.

Our stake just completed its first ever Pioneer Trek activity.  In our fast & testimony meeting this weekend, most of the speakers talked about their experiences as leaders or participants.  I would have thought these contrived experiences wouldn’t be as touching as they were, but some of their experiences were moving and instructive.

Several of the men & boys who had just gotten back from Trek talked about the Women’s Pull being the hardest part of the experience. The men were told to trudge up a hill and wait at the top while the girls in the “families,” without any help from the adults (the Ma leaders), had to pull the handcarts up the hill alone. Several of the men commented that the hike up the hill was in and of itself very difficult, with a lot of large rocks, and a steep incline.  They got to the top of the hill winded and sweaty, and then had to watch in silence as the girls pulled the carts without them.

The men were told they couldn’t help, and they weren’t even allowed to cheer them on or provide any kind of visible encouragement. One of the boys whose family we care deeply about explained with emotion that he kept thinking about how his mother has breast cancer and is about to undergo her surgery this week, and that it will be for him like this activity was, albeit much closer to home. You want to help, but you really can’t. You can just watch and hope for the best.  You  have to trust all will work out and admire the strength of women.  It was a lesson in faith and patience, among other things.

One of the male leaders, an admitted rule-breaker, said he was ready to just break away from the men’s group and go help because one of the girls in his assigned family had been injured on the first day, but it dawned on him that if he did that, he would be undermining all the girls doing that pull.  He would be sending them a message that they aren’t strong enough to do hard things without a man to bail them out, and that it’s important we treat the women as strong as they really are and let them do tough things.  How often do we let our good intentions get in the way of other people’s experience and growth?

It was actually a pretty great fast & testimony meeting, one of the best I’ve been in, from a rather unexpected source.


  1. Amazing. I am so glad you shared this, Angela.

  2. Our stake experience was similar. At the beginning of the day, the boys were called out “with the Mormon Battalion” and the girls pulled alone. Eventually they came to a turn followed by a steep hill. The boys lined the hill on boy sides, solemnly with their hats over their hearts. The girls would come around the corner and start giggling at the sight, but getting the cart up the hill was beyond most of the “families” without some help, so a few male leaders would help when necessary (ie., before they started going backwards). Nobody was giggling by halfway up the hill, and some of the girls looked really beat, sometimes slipping and falling. The few male helpers were pretty exhausted by the time all the carts were up.

    I don’t think the experience did so much for the girls, but many of the boys were deeply affected. “It sucked to stand there and not be able to help,” was how they’d put it. After that hill and before an even steeper and much longer hill, the boys rejoined their families. Just walking that hill was pretty tiring for most, but after the early experience with the girls’ pull, many of the boys would get to the top with their wagons, take a two-minute breather, and run down to help the others. The last wagon had more helpers than places for them to put their hands, and that family made it to the top practically without breaking a sweat.

  3. Thanks, Angela.

  4. Yes, it sounds like that turned out well — thanks for sharing this!

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m glad it worked out so well. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I did not personally witness this, but I have been told when our stake’s girls first experienced this, that it too was moving, it became even more moving when the boys all by themselves, became singing “Come, come ye Saints” from the sidelines. One boy began it and without any prompting the others joined in. From what I have heard there was not a dry eye in the group.

    Whether pulling a handcart or pulling through cancer – the words of that hymn that mean so much. Thanks Angela for sharing. I’m not a big Trekker person myself, but these stories to inspire.

  7. NotRachel says:

    “It sucked to stand there and not be able to help,”
    That’s why I’d like to be ordained.

  8. it's a series of tubes says:

    I suspect that 99.9% of the ministering and helping that needs to be done does not require priesthood of any form…

  9. The Mormon Battalion was mustered into volunteer service on 16 July, 1846 and arrived in San Diego completing their duty on Jan 29, 1847.

    On April 5th,1847 Brigham Young started west from Winter Quarters with his vanguard wagon train which consisted of 72 wagons and 148 people. They were followed by 9 other wagon companies in the month of June and one more in August of that year.

    The church continued to have many wagon trains in subsequent years. In 1855 there was a poor harvest and the church was having trouble funding the perpetual emigration fund, were looking for cheaper ways to emigrate poor Europeans to Utah, and settled on the idea of handcarts.

    The first handcart company led by Edmund Ellsworth left Iowa City on June 9, 1856. That is more than 8 years after the Mormon Battalion was over.

    I appreciate the lessons about female empowerment that are being taught, but I wish we could do so without making up stories about our ancestors hardships. They were plenty hard without embellishing.

  10. J. Stapley says:

    I’m such a grouch. I hate the idea of the women’s pull, mostly because it never existed, though I appreciate the lessons described in the post.

  11. janiecej says:

    Thanks for mentioning this Angela. I have been frustrated with the women’s pull for a long time (because of the reasons that BL mentions), but I am also consistently struck by how moving this can be for many. I wonder how we can provide similar opportunities to learn without manufacturing them from fake history?

  12. Is the women’s pull manufactured from fake history or is it just an experiment in which they say “look how hard this would be if the women had to do this without the support of their husbands, fathers, brothers, or sons?” Is the complaint that some stakes are basically taking that scene in Legacy as literal in which all the men leave for the Mormon Battalion, implying that the women were then left to go the rest of the way without any men? I hadn’t realized stakes were employing that particular narrative when they were doing the women’s pull — I just thought it was to showcase the hardships in general.

  13. Many women did go to Utah without their husbands who enlisted in the Battalion, but they went in wagon’s not pushing a handcart.

  14. Didn’t some women in handcart companies end up without husbands along the way?

  15. J. Stapley says:

    John, sure. Beyond death, there were all sorts of handcart pioneers, with varying levels of support, male and female. But no one ever just stood around watching.

  16. Of course, especially in the Willie and Martin handcart companies.

  17. I think most stakes’ treks are only a few days nowadays and I don’t think there’s a whole lot of pretense to historical re-enactment. On the first trek I was on, I was also pretty irritated with the conflated history, but I think the idea is to get the kids to put themselves in the shoes of those who’d gone before and ask themselves how they’d react, or how certain experiences might relate to them. It is true that a number of them are going to get their historical facts wrong, but on the two treks I was on, the verbal narrative was more correct (eg., the kids were told that the Mormon Battalion event happened long before the handcarts, but I don’t know how many were listening). Rather than be irritated, I try to view it more as a type, like when Peter quoted a prophecy from Joel about the 2nd coming to describe what was happening on the Day of Pentecost. Mormon women were often left by their husbands to face hard things — the Mormon Battalion leaving was difficult when it happened, the fatality rate among the men in the Willie and Martin Handcart companies was higher than that of the women, and later, many polygamous and missionary wives were left to cope with difficult struggles on their own. Each evening, the “families” would review the events of the day and relate them to themselves, very much like the testimonies Angela C described. As for contrivance, most things organized for teens, whether in or out of the church, are contrived to some degree or another. Even our service projects (in almost all cases, there are more efficient means to perform the same work). However, these experiences do affect the kids (and through them the future), so contrived or not, they can be valuable.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    At MHA Calgary in 2012 there was actually a presentation on the history of trek. For your enlightenment, I’ll paste in my notes from the session below:

    Mel Bashore on handcart treks. Such treks are done in far flung places, even in South America.

    Novel attraction when originally used. During BY’s life talk about them suppressed; Willie and Martin still too fresh. After his death, seen in a positive light.

    Handcart Veterans and Daughters of Handcart Veterans organized after turn of century. Boy Scout recreations became common and popular.

    The caravans to SLC in cars with canvas tops to look like covered wagons. Similar to Civil War reenactments. Give Mormon youth a small taste of pioneer life.

    Modern phenomenon can be traced to 1966. 11 homemade carts, traveled by bus and car from Arizona. Axels broke, bent; at evening camp would hammer out. In SL they attended conference sessions of YMMIA. An energetic YMP was spark behind the event. He talked to the guy. He just came up with the idea; just sounded like an adventuresome, fun thing to do, and at same time teach a little about church history. Nightly testimony meeting. Sacrament meeting, blessed water in a big jug.

    Two years later, girls did same trip as boys had two years before. Girls made own pioneer clothing, made soap, cooked over a campfire. Physical fitness award, do a mile run, 25-mile hike, had to do two book reports, and pass a test on handcart history. (Leader had thought, “Gee, why can’t girls do this?” so they did.) College guys drove by and said “Hey, you’re late, they already settled the valley!”

    Another ten years before another event; 10 companies, 10 per company. Lessons in teamwork. Discovered limitations. At campfire, first three mountain men told stories of life in wilderness. Fired muzzle loading rifles. Pulled one for one hour and exhausted, when great grandmother had pulled for three months.

    Nine years later Emigration Stake organized another one. (So two in the 60s and three in 70s) Became a rite of passage.

    One in England (he didn’t learn much about that one), and also one in Virginia. Dramatic attack on campsite by an angry mob. Next day they trekked; temperatures over 100 degrees.

    In 1979 and a few years thereafter you could earn credit at Ricks by pushing a handcart 98 miles into Montana. A five day preparation period (jerked beef, survival skills, etc.) 3/4 of participants young women. Prim and proper at start, but learned how to rough it. Displayed spunk; not freaked out by leeches in pond. Horrified at having to cut a chicken’s head off, but then did it.

    For about a decade up to 1992 BYU had a pioneer handcart trek course. Gave way to more popular programs like EFY.

    Most not conducted on historic trails; an exception is Wyoming.

    1997 launched explosion of interest in handcart treks for youth. Has become a symbol to honor the past. Parents like youth to experience the hardships of pioneers; lead to spiritual growth.

  19. To the sisters: What would be your feelings if you were told to stand by while your young sons had to pull a handcart up a particularly steep portion of the trail? Wouldn’t you feel the same as the men and boys who watched the girls do the Women’s Pull?

  20. I’m glad when other people learn principles or are uplifted by experiences that for me, do not produce the same affect. I am not moved by historical pioneer fiction (sorry Gerald Lund), and am not moved by fabricated re-enactments like this.

    Personally, I would be more apt to understand it if men, women and children were called to step aside during a ‘lone pull’ which would represent ALL persons who were left to pull missing ANY family member for ANY reason.

    Having a mixed gender and age group stand aside would pay homage to the following pioneer scenarios:

    1) Childbirth recovery, illness or death
    2) Missions and special assignments (men weren’t the only ones who accepted these assignments. Women and families did as well!)
    3) Sickness and Death (due to age and disease)
    4) Leaving families behind to travel to Zion (parents, siblings, etc.)

    Some could watch (representing those who passed though the veil), some could see and trek the hill, but not watch, and some could only be told stories and see the exhaustion and blisters on families later that evening.

    Personally, in my family history we had pioneer women who accepted (with their families) special callings to live and serve in Winter Quarters and on the plains for YEARS helping saints cross. (It wasn’t just the glorified husband. It was EVERYONE. We also had mothers die in childbirth in Nauvoo and early on the trek, elderly persons pass away naturally, and all ages and genders succumb to typical 19thc diseases and accidents (falling off horses, getting shot, falling in wells, wagon accidents, etc.). There were teenagers who carried on- caring for younger siblings after parents died en route. We also had single women cross in an early handcart company, reporting racing another handcart company to the valley in good sport -arriving to a parade, watermelons, brass bands, and a cheering Brigham in the streets of SL.

    Gang, I love my pioneer bonnet and I love dressing up and re-enacting. (One day I would love to serve a senior mission in Nauvoo!!!) However, I will pass on this heart-string pull.

  21. I participated in a trek in 1998 in Bancroft, Idaho from the Tyhee Stake. The women’s trek was awkward. Guys standing watching us, girls kicking butt and being able to pull it up. Not one word was said about how we were able to do it and we were strong — just a lot of guys feeling helpless because they could have done it easier and faster and that made them emotional because it’s their job to protect and provide and take care of families blah blah. um, okay. benevolent patriarchy at its finest, I suppose?

  22. My experience in 2004 was like Kristine’s. Most of the guys that talked about it after made it all about them and how it made them feel more obligated to protect and provide because of how pathetic we looked, apparently. I remember being annoyed because the boys in my “family” hardly pulled at all anyway–the girls almost exclusively pulled the entire trek–and I didn’t hear a word about how the women’s pull made anyone more appreciative of the strength that women have.

  23. grumpy on trek says:

    About fifteen years ago our stake held it’s first trek. During the sacrament meeting afterward lots of kids bore testimony that angels helped the girls push the carts up the hill. The idea didn’t set well with me. A bunch of upper middle class healthy girls push a cart for a quarter of a mile and need angels.

  24. As a very physically strong and rather capable woman, I kind of like the idea of a women’s pull. I like opportunities for girls to dig in and prove their mettle, and I like the lesson that the boys can learn about lending moral support, but standing back to witness a weaker team that can still get the job done. (Although I do like the scenario of having mixed crews so everyone can learn both lessons.) I think leaders probably have a lot to do about the take-away lessons.

    My hands-on / Little Red Hen attitude makes it hard for me to let go and delegate to those who I perceive to have less experience or capacity. I think it’s a valuable reminder that we to let quite-capable-enough people struggle, contribute and succeed without jumping in to help/take over.

  25. love annon’s idea of a mixed gender sit out!

  26. wreddyornot says:

    I finished high school in 1966. To learn the significance of historical tribulations, sacrifice, faith, and effort in the lives of people of the Mormon past is all fine and well. But I suggest that having the youth watch a good documentary and doing some actual reading to learn the handcart histories and stories and then going and spending their own faith, sacrifice, tribulations, and efforts in beneficial service projects serving others is better. And, please, lets take the sexism out of it. Kids will inject enough of their own in such an enterprise.

  27. Thanks Angela. Its great to hear an example of lessons from the women’s pull that are about female needs and empowerment instead of another story about how it affects the boys. I cringe whenever the women’s pull is turned into a male-centered narrative driven by female physically playing out a dramaturgy of weakness and need for help. In my fantasy world my girls would hit the hill with their friends and push right up it because they are strong and they can.

  28. Our stake did something similar a few years ago when we held our Pioneer Trek experience. I was on Trek as a Company Captain (oversee 7 families of about 8-10 people). I also had the opportunity to speak to the boys about the upcoming women’s pull. I told them to focus on just how strong these girls are and to consider the power that would be on display as they pulled past them. They needed to see them as women of strength and courage, not as damsels in distress. Our stake had told the men that they could help pull at a certain point, but I challenged the boys and men to let the girls pull all the way to the top by themselves. Then at the end of the pull they should tell the girls how awesome it was to watch them do what they did. As the handcarts got to the crest of the hill, a big lightning storm blew in and it was loud. The boys and I were shouting at our “sisters” about how amazing that was and how strong they were. We were high-fiving them and the excitement was infectious with the youth. The girls were genuinely touched that we were so excited for them. One elderly woman however was not impressed and chastised us for not showing proper reverence for the ‘re-enactment’ of pioneer women suffering. I shrugged it off and said that it’s hard to reverence something that never happened in real life…but that I was indeed VERY PROUD of those girls and would continue to laugh and encourage them in a positive way. One young girl was SO proud of herself and as we talked about it later she said “if I can pull a handcart up that hill in those conditions, then I know I can do hard things and make tough decisions to do what is right.” That to me was the best payoff.

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