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Book review: 'Sister Saints' an engaging history of 20th-century LDS women

Historian Colleen McDannell's latest book is "Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy."
Historian Colleen McDannell's latest book is "Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy."
Provided by Oxford Press

"Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy," by Colleen McDannell, Oxford University Press, 312 pages (nf)

Colleen McDannell holds the Sterling M. McMurrin Chair in Religious Studies at the University of Utah and is the author of a number of well-regarded books on American religious history. She has long been particularly concerned not with doctrine or abstract belief, but with the ways in which religion manifests in, and changes, the lives of those who believe in it. She has performed a double service for readers in her volume, "Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy."

Historians of the religious tradition Joseph Smith founded have long lamented that insatiable fascination with Smith’s life and with the practice of plural marriage have fixated readers and researchers alike on the earliest generations of the church, and on the charismatic male leaders of the 19th century.

But by reframing the story around the experience of women, McDannell offers us a broad synthesis of the lives of female members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 20th century that redirects our attention away from the pronouncements of the leaders and toward the dense and textured and often contradictory experiences of the faithful. Her storytelling is graceful, and the book is captivating, easy to read and short (perhaps too short — particularly in the early goings McDannell moves quickly and left me wanting a bit more on the early 20th-century leaders Susa Young Gates and her daughter Leah Widtsoe; the two arguably had more impact on contemporary rhetoric about gender in the church than did Amy Brown Lyman, whom McDannell spends much time on).

Historian Colleen McDannell's latest book is "Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy."
Historian Colleen McDannell's latest book is "Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy."
Provided by Oxford Press

Through the lens of the lives of women, McDannell tells us, the 20th-century Latter-day Saint experience looks a great deal like the product of a push and pull between leadership and membership. The great story she has to tell is about modernization, the ways in which church members gave up the separation from contemporary society they sought in their retreat from the United States to the Utah territory. There, they abandoned Victorian monogamy for polygamy, the 19th-century market economy for economic communalism, and democracy for theocratic leadership.

But of course, all of these ideals were imperfectly implemented. At the same time they strove to build a transformed world, church members in the United States were always drawn back toward the practices they had left behind, and non-Americans who were baptized and emigrated to Utah often found the very Americanness of the faith tempting as well.

This tension persisted throughout the 20th century. McDannell’s focus on the lives of women, generally not a part of the highest leadership ranks of the church, throws it into sharp relief, showing how church leaders’ desires to reconcile with modernity were shaped as much by the needs, inclinations and desires of the membership as by the leaders themselves.

For instance, Lyman, who served at the highest levels of the Relief Society for several decades in the early 19th century, infused that organization with the professionalism and ideals of modern social work before the Church Welfare Plan, organized in the 1930s, assumed responsibility for most social services in the church. Lyman’s legacy remains in the church’s Family Services department and, more broadly, the church’s mid-20th-century move toward professionalized administration.

McDanell also gives attention to other women lacking Lyman’s high leadership in the church. They include Sonia Johnson, whose protests of the church’s positions on gender issues led to both her excommunication and heightened national attention upon the church, and Helen Andelin, whose book "Fascinating Womanhood" celebrated traditional gender norms and made her a national celebrity. In the turbulent age of the 1960s sexual revolution, both Johnson and Andelin drew a spotlight onto the church and its teachings about gender.

Perhaps the most fascinating illustration of the dynamic McDannell wants to illustrate is her reading of the famous 1995 document “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” An authoritative statement of church teachings on gender roles — and for members of the church, divinely inspired — it is often read by academics and activists as simply a celebration of conservative 20th-century American gender norms.

But McDannell believes that its careful wording reflects the church leadership’s desire to accommodate its ideals to the lived reality of a membership of women with jobs as well as families. She argues that the church has rejected the explicit language of male authority to a far greater extent than many conservative Protestant American churches have.

McDannell deserves particular praise for her effort to draw focus to non-American women, like the South African Relief Society president Ayana Sidzatane, who found in church teachings on the sanctity of marriage relief from a family riddled with abusive men. McDannell believes that people like Sidzatane represent the future of women in the church, and indeed, the story of Sidzatane encapsulates McDannell’s strengths: her attention to nuance, her broad scope and her persuasive argument.

Alongside modernization, McDannell’s great theme is the diversity of women in the church, in both background and belief, and she has supplemented the typical sources of the historian with a wide range of interviews.

Chapters on women outside the United States and on women’s use of the internet highlight the range of women’s experiences and emphasize that any narrative which reduces them either to silent oppression or to perfectly coiffed cheer is incomplete. She explores the worlds of mommy bloggers, African Relief Society presidents, feminist organizers and Boston journalists. All of them, in the last measure, are part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and all have shaped it as much as it has shaped them.

Content advisory: "Sister Saints" contains no strong language, sexual or violent content.