thomsimpsonbokA while ago I was contacted by Thomas Simpson who offered me a review copy of “American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism.” There are some great reviews already out there (at Juvenile Instructor and Ben Park’s blog) and I encourage you to read them. The author recently came and spoke at BYU and this week The Maxwell Institute released a podcast with the author that is worth your time (found here). The book is absolutely fascinating and I find his argument that universities played a key role in “re-Americanizing” Mormonism (after we no longer considered ourselves American) compelling. I couldn’t put the book down and highly recommend it, if you can’t buy one you can usually request that your library purchase one.

The overarching message I received (besides the value of higher education) is that nothing we’re experiencing right now in Mormon culture is new: not our fear of the “world” and its influence, not the tensions and fears that followers will abandon deference to church authorities when exposed to new knowledge, not our reluctance to reconcile faith with new scientific theories, not our paralyzing fear of doubt and faith crises, or even our tattle-tale culture of LDS students reporting on each other. It’s all in this book and sometimes it can be disconcerting to look at the cover photo and see a reflection of our current culture and anxieties. In some ways it’s a little comforting; the tensions that seem to almost rip us apart have always been with us.

Since the book has been so thoroughly well reviewed elsewhere, I wanted to just share one realization that occurred to me as a Mormon feminist while reading the book: many of our stories of progress didn’t come just because empowering women was the right thing to do, but because of an outside justification or because doing so presented better PR to the world. I’ll share a few examples.

  • I agree with Simpson that both nation building and public relations played into Brigham’s decision to include women in the education initiative. In the 1860s the transcontinental railroad was completed and Mormon men began to be set apart to go back East to study and bring their expertise back to Utah. In 1973 Brigham says “the time has come for women to come forth as doctors in these valleys and mountains.” Eliza explained that he wanted to “do away with the necessity of employing male doctors or women [who are] not our people.” He probably was not only worried about keeping Mormon dollars in the community, but that having our own female doctors trained in obstetrics would preserve our “female modesty.” Romania Pratt was the first woman to enroll. Within a few years Ellis Shipp, Maggie Shipp, and Martha Paul joined her going back East for medical degrees. This is great news, but would it have happened if it weren’t determined that it needed to? It’s not like women were being sent back to study law or theology. An interesting point the author makes is that it wouldn’t have been possible for these women to complete their education without the polygamous sister wives who supported each other financially, emotionally, and by watching each others’ children. Mixed blessings, indeed. (Simpson)
  • Mormons became pariahs in American culture because of polygamy over the next forty years. One of the reasons suffrage was granted to Utah women was to improve Mormon public image, it was one of the few ways Mormon men could show the world their women weren’t oppressed. One event from 1893 from the World’s Parliament of Religion exemplifies how Mormon men used “independent” women for PR amidst their polygamy issues. BH Roberts submitted and was a denied request to speak there because Mormon polygamists were not welcome. Fortunately for Mormons, the monogamist, suffrage activist Emily Richards was invited to come and speak. BH Roberts recorded in his diary that he was instructed by church leaders to write Richards’ speech. It was submitted to the first presidency for approval and then he sent it as a letter for her to read. Even when Mormon men were presenting to the world that their women were independent and autonomous, they were dictating their speech for PR purposes, word for word. Emily’s speech was on “The Women of Mormondom.” (Richards story source)
  • The most recent example comes less than two years ago. I remember being in my home and reading the recently released essays on polygamy the church had posted on While knowing many of the details previously, the essays still had me (and many other women) grappling not just with the details, but how they were presented. It only took a few weeks for the polygamy essays began to make news headlines around the nation for some of the facts that were admitted to officially for the first time (i.e. Fanny, now infamous “few months shy of fifteen” bit). Do you remember what the church dropped on a Friday afternoon amidst the growing public consternation over Joseph’s polygamy? Mormon women who are teaching seminary will no longer be fired if they have children! A move that many women had been hoping for a long time was dropped right as the PR from the essays reached their peak. I felt manipulated. Whether it was intentional or not, they chose to break news of their new progressive policies for women amidst their PR issues over….women.

I’m not sure the message I’m supposed to take from this. On one hand it certainly doesn’t work to just give the church bad PR regarding women as a strategy for making progress. We’ve learned that over the last few years.

Make no mistake progress comes; but I can’t help but be demoralized by feeling that progress only comes when necessary, and only when it can make the leaders look good. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Processing.


now that you read about that don’t forget to listen to the podcast, read the reviews, and then buy the book above! it’s really good. it’s education, feminism, polygamy, creeping secularism, battles over orthodoxy, people getting fired for teaching evolution, how BYUs were grown out of our paranoia of outside influences stealing the testimonies of our youth, etc. Good stuff.