Who’s Gonna Teach Us to Tango?: A Discussion of Claudia Bushman’s MormonStories Interview

Mormon Stories # 058: Women and the LDS Church Part 4 — 19th and Early 20th Century Mormon Women

Mormon Stories # 059: Women and the LDS Church Part 5 — 19th and Early 20th Century Mormon Women Part 2

Claudia Bushman shares more of her insights in this two-part series detailing the lives and experiences of Mormon women in the 19th and early 20th century. Dr. Bushman speaks of ten women who have taken the time to record their life experiences, and as she paraphrases and quotes from each woman’s story, Claudia adds contextual details to show why these stories are all significant. Here’s a list of the featured women:

Part I

1) Lucy Mack Smith, whose story gives great insight into the early life of the church and of the prophet Joseph Smith. Lucy, Joseph’s mother, mixes significant historical happenings with the mundane and comical experiences of daily life. Claudia notes that those who want to read Lucy’s words should seek out a copy of Lavina Fielding Anderson’s most recent edition, Lucy’s Book, as previous editions were often heavily edited to purge out some elements of the story (she adds that the editing was sometimes done in such a way that it vilified Emma, Joseph’s first wife, and Lucy because they chose not to travel West with the Saints).
2) Emma Smith’s blessing just after Joseph went to Carthage Jail, which can be found reprinted in Mormon Enigma. Claudia explains that when Joseph was leaving for Carthage, Emma asked for a blessing at his hand. He suggested that she write out her own blessing and he would sign it when he returned home. Joseph was killed by a mob while in the Jail, so the blessing was never signed. But it does offer great insight into the feelings of Emma towards her husband.
3) Charlotte Hafen, a Gentile wrote in 1843 about attending a party at Sidney Rigdon’s house in Nauvoo. We discover that this 9-hour long party included the tying of 5 quilts, an extensive meal, singing songs, and an original dance that started with marching and ended with kissing(!).
4) Mary Isabella Horne writing about the challenges of living in the Salt Lake Valley during the early years—living in a sod house and having to carry an umbrella indoors because of the mud coming down from the ceiling.
5) Ellis Reynolds Shipp: plural wife, mother of several children, and medical doctor. She went to medical school in the East despite a lack of enthusiasm about this career path from her husband. Ellis became pregnant while home for the summer after her first year in med school and returned to school anyways, giving birth just after her exams. Claudia speaks about the many Mormon career women in the Utah period, adding that there were more women doctors in the Utah region than anywhere else in the US.

Part II

6) Elizabeth Caine (wife of a friend of the Mormons, Thomas Caine), writes as she travels by wagon from Salt Lake to St George and describes the homes that she visits along the way. She found polygamy repulsive, especially when she saw on older man “going down the generations to his grandchildren’s time to seek a new partner…while she who shared the joys and sorrows of his youth looks on, old and grey.”
7) Claudia’s grandmother, Elizabeth Shupe Gordon (1866-1896) gives an inspiring account of her conversion to the church, speaking of burning “electric thrills” that she felt each time she read from the Book of Mormon.
8) Alice Louise Reynolds: Prof of English & Religion at BYU. She was such a friend to everyone that a group of women decided to organize an Alice Louise Reynolds Club, and there were 15 chapters of this club in the 50s. Never married, she spent her sabbaticals teaching at other universities and traveling. Amy Brown Lyman became her biographer, bio was published by ALR Clubs.
9) The Newberry-award winning author Virginia Sorensen.[Note: she mentions Sorensen elsewhere in the podcast and doesn’t discuss her much at this point]. Those who want to learn more about Mormon life in the early 20th century would enjoy reading Where Nothing is Long Ago, a collection of short stories by Sorensen.
10) Historian Juanita Brooks was this very powerful intellectual who lived a fairly traditional life. Claudia retells a humorous incident from Juanita’s childhood and then discusses her work as a historian: she would always kept the ironing board up and had a basket of dampened clothes near her desk and when someone came by she’d start ironing so they’d never know that she was really writing [note: this reminds me of the stories I’ve read of Jane Austen hiding her writing under her needlework]. Brooks would travel on overnight buses to do research in Salt Lake or at the Huntington Library.

The discussion ends with interviewer John Dehlin asking Claudia some general questions about women and religion. Some interesting points in this section occur when Claudia decries those that leave the church. She says,

“Leaving the church is not any kind of an answer to a better life. That’s just like leaving something good for outer darkness. It’s just better to stick with the church and try and make something out of it.”

Yet she also discusses how much the church has changed since she was younger, explaining that her grandchildren have told her that they’ve “never had a happy experience at church.” Claudia says that her childhood and teen years in the church were joyful and happy and that the “block” scheduling has destroyed much of the fun. “Who’s gonna teach us to tango now?” she asks as she reminisces about the tango dancing lesson she had annually in her ward.

Claudia encourages women to make their own way in the church, organizing projects and special interest groups. She says that those who are miserable in the church should write about their disaffection, leaving their thoughts for future generations. As she says at the beginning of Part I:

“It’s the people who write, who last. If any woman out there has any inclination to to remembered in the future, the next few generations, she’d just better get busy and write out her story, her experiences.”

Some questions for those of you who listen to the podcast:

1) Which the women she profiled were new to you? Which of their writings/stories did you find most compelling?

2) How do you express your feelings about the church? Do you write them down? Do you expect or hope that someday someone (a Mormon historian, perhaps) will be using your words to tell about the condition of women in the church in the 21st century? Do you see blogs as an accurate recording of the lives of contemporary LDS women?

3) If you could organize a special project or interest group in your ward, what would it be? Would you want to learn to tango? 🙂

Note: the photo above is of Alice Louise Reynolds.

5 thoughts on “Who’s Gonna Teach Us to Tango?: A Discussion of Claudia Bushman’s MormonStories Interview

  1. Bored in Vernal

    Thank you for this discussion, Jana. I enjoyed listening to these podcasts. I hadn’t heard of Charlotte Hafen, Mary Isabella Horne, or Elizabeth Caine. The other stories were pretty familiar to me. I found Lavina’s “Lucy’s Book” in the library about a month ago and am enjoying going through it. (Though I’ve had to renew it twice! That never happens!) I second the recommendation. Lavina is amazing.

    I find Juanita Brooks extremely compelling. I love how she was able to combine family life and her work as an historian. Also how she dealt with ambiguity in the Mormon Church.

    I haven’t been satisfied with the writing of my story. I started with a journal which glossed over the difficulties and was extremely faith-promoting. Then during my twenties and thirties, dealing with my large family, I rarely wrote. When I did, I poured out my frustrations, and left only a record of the negative! Recently, I went back to my high school journal. Although I distinctly remember that I could think in high school, you wouldn’t know it by reading. I speak only of boys, boys, boys, dates and kissing. It is truly inane. I write nothing of Richard Nixon’s impeachment. I don’t chronicle my thoughts on the Vietnam War. What a shame.

    I don’t know if my blog does any better. It’s more honest than some of my other writing. But probably not representative of a 21st century Mormon woman.

    I truly miss the Church Claudia Bushman grew up in. I know that many modern Mormons are trying to get away from more meetings. But I miss the time when the Church was a family’s social life. When there were road shows, dances, Blue and Gold balls, sing-a-longs, Pioneer treks, quilting parties, and so many other activities.

    My special project would be a sisters scripture study. I have done this in some wards I have been in, and I’ve never learned so much or grown so close to a group as I have while studying together.

  2. Paula

    Well, this isn’t an answer to your question, but my reaction to this is that she really put her finger on the reaction my own kids have had to church. I used to love Primary, and loved going up to the church for weekday Primary, especially during the summer, when it was cool, and we had time to do a lot of fun things at church. My kids thought of Primary as a really long boring time when they were hungry and stuck in a cramped noisy room for two hours. The block period’s too long for kids, and the idea that we can’t have much in the way of activity for kids in Primary now because it’s the Sabbath makes Primary pretty dull.

  3. jana

    Regarding #3: Our ward tried to form a ‘Theater Group’ but the Bishop put his foot down because he thought the content of many plays inappropriate for a group of Mormon ladies. The Book Group that was started had to have every book approved by the Stake RS President.
    I think this kind of censorship squashes special interest groups that Claudia encourages even before they can get off the ground. Or it forces them underground, which can create cliques.

  4. Tatiana

    I really loved Dr. Bushman’s podcasts, and it gave me such a sense of continuity with the Sisters of the past. I feel the urge to write my story, simply to join in sisterhood with those women. I thought thought her suggestion that we sit down and write our story, our mother’s story, and our grandmother’s story and make the connections in thought and spirit that are there is an awesome one. Look for that in mid to late July when I am invited to guest-post on T+S.

    My paper journal is only about my spiritual life, and my connection with the church. It’s pretty much all positive, and I tend to not record stuff in there that is negative, thinking that I want to work it out and make it right before committing it to paper. I keep an electronic journal on my computer as well, in which I’m completely honest. I’m not sure if that’s fit for future generations to read or not. I’m sure that reading it myself later, I will probably cringe.

    It struck me as so sad that a historian doing important work felt the need to pretend she was ironing, rather than “wasting her time” with history. It’s quite a testament to her love of what she was doing, and to her determination, that she could continue under those circumstances.

    The thing I love most about the podcast is Dr. Bushman’s realization that we as Mormon women really can do these things. We aren’t encouraged, but then, we don’t have to wait for encouragement. We can just do it, whatever it is. We may not be recognized for it in this generation, we may even have to pretend we’re ironing, but we can go ahead and do these things. God wants us to, I believe, even if not all of his servants see it like that.

  5. ECS

    Jana – excellent post! I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I’ve also had a similar experience as yours with respect to book groups, which gives creedence to Claudia Bushman’s assertion that the Church is very suspicious of grass roots movements. When I think of all the woman power we could mobilize in favor of, say, environmental conservation, literacy, immigration reform, etc., it makes me sad that the Church doesn’t engage with the broader community on these issues – officially or unofficially.

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