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Women hired by LDS Church History Department making huge strides in Mormon women’s history

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SALT LAKE CITY — Kate Holbrook and Jenny Reeder applied for the same job in 2011. This was not just any old job, either. This one was distinctive, a unicorn in their field. In fact, it was unprecedented in Mormon history.

The LDS Church History Department had posted a job opening for an official position specializing in women's history.

"I was really excited that there was going to be a specific institutional space for women's history," Holbrook said, "and I wanted to do it."

Holbrook got the job, but two years later, in what each of the women believe is a clear signal that church leaders care about women's issues, the history department's leadership doubled up, hiring Reeder to be a specialist in 19th-century women's history. They then also added Mormon women's historian Lisa Tait to the department's web team. Together with Brittany Chapman Nash, the four women represent a burgeoning golden age of women's history within an important arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"We all know there is a lot of sensitivity related to questions about women in the church right now," Tait said. "Doing women's history in the church is a way, at least indirectly, of speaking to those concerns and showing that the church is aware of and concerned about and invested in women's stories and experiences in the church. Whether women's history can fully speak to the issues of today, that's another question, but I think that the church wants to show itself to be aware of and sensitive to gender issues, and so including women in the historical narrative is one way of doing that."

Focus on women

The hiring of these four women is evidence the Church History Department has embraced two major, current approaches to women's history, Tait said.

"The compensatory approach is the idea that women have been left out of history in the past, and that we need to recover and make women visible, we need to compensate for the lack of women in the record by focusing specifically on women and women's history. The impetus behind having women's history specialists, like we do here in the department, is that we've got to have some balance, and that women's history has got to be an area of focus so we don't lose sight of that."

Holbrook and Reeder, with their titles as women's history specialists, chiefly do compensatory work.

"The other approach is what I'd call integrative," Tait said, "so the idea that we're going to simply treat women and women's voices and women's stories as part of the larger narrative. It's not some separate history of its own, but it's integral to telling the whole story of history."

"History needs to be told," Holbrook added, "in a way that integrates what men were doing with what women were doing."

Tait sees herself mostly in an integrative role, but it is not a neat distinction for any of the four. The web team has done what could be labeled compensatory work with a video about early sister missionaries, and it has a section on the website called "Women of Conviction."

Nash also regularly steers historians who come to the Church History Library toward integrative history by pointing them to women's sources in her role in the public services division, but at the same time she is co-author of "Women of Faith in the Latter Days," a three-volume book series with Rick Turley, the assistant church historian.

"Ideally," Tait said, "you want those two approaches to be in balance. You want both of those at the same time."

Indispensable contributions

The history department hires are noteworthy at a time when the church is deliberately working to raise the visibility of women. Many of the changes are unmissable. Women leaders now regularly give prayers at the church's global general conferences, during which they also sit in the center of the stand. Their portraits hang in the Conference Center, and the women's session has become an official part of general conference. Perhaps most visual are the 20,000 young sister missionaries serving around the world, a result of a decision to lower the missionary age for women to 19. The New York Times said "the standard image of a Mormon missionary, a gangly young man in a dark suit, was suddenly out of date."

Less conspicuous outside the church but deeply meaningful within the faith are expanded roles for the wives of mission presidents, new leadership roles for sister missionaries and increased emphasis on contributions by women who are members of every local ward and stake councils. Last year, the church added the women who lead the faith's worldwide organizations for women, teenage girls and children to the church’s key, leading executive councils. Those women's leaders travel the world, training local priesthood leaders and ministering to members of all ages.

Church leaders like Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve also recently have made clear that women exercise priesthood authority without ordination. And in October, the church released a new official essay that certified its doctrinally distinctive teachings about a Mother in Heaven.

"It's a zeitgeist," Nash said. "It's a moment in time where people are interested and excited about Mormon women's history, where they came from, what they were interested in, what they did."

The women's historians are all in the midst of publishing work that illuminates the indispensable roles women have played in the church throughout its 185-year history. That's critical at time, Reeder said, when she has friends who question the role and place of women in the church.

"They don't understand that women have always had an integral part to play in the church and have contributed immensely to the theological discussion. I think it's super empowering."

This is an important reason Holbrook likes her job, because of its opportunity to make an impact.

"I like to choose history projects that I think matter to people today and can help us today," she said. "We need to see more vividly the ways women's contributions have been an integral part of building the church throughout church history. It's something we need to see and understand to understand how to move forward and to help Latter-day Saint women really feel their worth and, I think, to feel like this is a place to put their energy, to see that it is a place where women have put their energy to important results and achieved important things.

"Women really being able to see how Mormon women have helped build the church is part of why I think history matters. "

Prolific quartet

The four women have embraced their opportunity with enthusiasm and passion.

"The job description said it was for women's history," Holbrook said, "but it wasn't clearly defined. Those are circumstances I like. There's possibility and flexibility."

But in fact, the possibilities are so vast that they threaten to overwhelm the quartet, who feel a heavy responsibility.

"There are way more men studying Mormon history than women," Holbrook said, "and that's one of the reasons why my colleagues and I are inundated, because we want to say yes to the opportunities we have to spread the good word. There's only so much a body can do."

For example, the exuberant Reeder, who is battling leukemia, is working on four books.

"I can think of so many projects I would love to work on," she said. "There are all these women we have, and we're getting snippets of their words in these places. If we could find some way to bring it all together, it would be so cool."

On Feb. 29, they will make a noteworthy new dent in that goal and make a some history of their own with the publication of "The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History." The book, a history told through the documents of the early years of the church's women's organization, will be the first title from the Church Historian's Press outside of the Joseph Smith Papers project.

Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich called the book "a signal contribution to religious studies (and) women's history ... In my view it is the most important work to emerge from the Mormon press in the last 50 years."

Holbrook is one of the co-editors. Reeder spent 10 years working on the project with two of the other three co-editors — legendary LDS women's historians Jill Mulvay Derr and Carol Cornwall Madsen.

What's ahead

Next year, Holbrook and Reeder will publish a book that provides two or three discourses given by Mormon women from each decade since the church's foundation.

"What we really want to show is that not only did women speak publicly," Reeder said, "but they said amazing things, and they were really a huge part of the theological discourse."

"At the Pulpit: Latter-day Saint Women Speak, 1831-2014," introduces Mormon women Reeder herself had never heard of, like Matilda Dudley Busby, who as a child was kidnapped by Native Americans in Pennsylvania and later became president of the Salt Lake 13th Ward Indian Relief Society.

"Half of the power of their talks comes from their stories," Reeder said.

Holbrook felt that collecting the discourses and learning about the women who gave them brought new people into her life.

"Learning about their lives and learning from their words has been a real high for me," she said. "It's been a real intellectual high over this past year or so that I've been working on that book."

Reeder is working with Janiece Johnson on a book about women witnesses to the Restoration, which includes a chapter on women's experiences with the 11 witnesses to the Book of Mormon. She recently used some of the women's experiences with Jesus Christ that she has collected for another chapter in teaching a Young Women's class in her ward.

"I wanted my Young Women to know that women in this church have always had testimonies of Jesus Christ," Reeder said. "It's not new today; that's not true. Women have always spoken, and once they understand that heritage, I think it changes them."

Among numerous other projects, Holbrook, Reeder, Tait and Nash also are part of the Mormon Women’s History Initiative Team, and the foursome is working together as a team on a project they cannot yet disclose.

Circle of witnesses

Holbrook said part of the power of being a Mormon women's historian is enlarging her "circle of witnesses" to include more women who are no longer living.

"I think the dead save us, too," she said, "and this is an important part of why the church puts so much energy into history. We find comfort, direction and inspiration in the stories and words of people who have come before us. I think the dead can be part of the process of answering our prayers, but they of course are limited. We have to open our eyes to their legacy, to their words, to their stories, or they can't help us in that way."

Nash has a similar bond with women from Mormon history.

"I feel like their legacy, their testimonies, their assurance and walks of faith give an incredibly strong witness today of what they held to be true. We still can gain strength from them. I certainly do all the time."

Holbrook — and each of the women — mentioned their gratitude for those who made their opportunities possible. Former Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen saw the need for a women's historian with that specific title, while Turley and Matt Grow and others in the Church History Department have been supportive as men trained academically in an era when Tait said "paying attention to gender and gender issues and gender perspectives is just part of the oxygen."

Jill Derr and Carol Madsen also paved the way. Derr had worked in the department and was a pioneer of LDS women's history, but she never had the title given Holbrook and Reeder. Nash, who has been in the department for about eight years, has seen the difference it's made.

"That was a huge stride forward," Nash said. "The visibility of having someone with that title, and to have people come in from other academic institutions with different perspectives, broadened horizons here."

Chapman, Holbrook, Reeder and Tait used words like vibrant, energetic and dynamic to describe the improved scholarship, new openness and fresh perspectives they've experienced at the Church History Department and Church History Library.

"It's a dream job," Tait said.

"It's a jackpot," Holbrook added. "I feel very lucky, and like I am where I'm supposed to be."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com