Essential Texts in Mormon Feminism?

In honor of Women’s History Month, I’d like to reopen our occasional series of Essential Texts in Mormon Studies. Traditionally, posts in the series have asked commenters to suggest their top five books within some segment of Mormon studies. For this post, let’s discuss what might be the essential texts in Mormon feminism.

Here are my own top five:

Newell & Avery, Mormon Enigma (Illinois). Outstanding Emma biography, and in many ways a fascinating recasting of the restoration story through the eyes of a prominent woman.
Claudia Bushman, Mormon Sisters (Emmeline Press). A collection of essays exploring the roles and stories of nineteenth-century Mormon women in Utah.
Derr, Cannon, and Beecher, Women of Covenant (Deseret). The history of the Relief Society, and of the many women involved.
Hanks, Women and Authority (Signature). Provocative essays on a variety of topics, including Heavenly Mother and women and the priesthood.
Godfrey, Godfrey and Derr, Women’s Voices. (Deseret). Essays about women’s roles and stories in LDS history.

There are many other interesting books that didn’t make my top five; it was quite close, in some cases. Some of the other books on the topic include:

Burgess-Olsen, Sister Saints. (BYU Press). Biographical essays about a variety of women in early church history.
Beecher & Anderson, Sisters in Spirit (Illinois). Essays about Mormon women in Mormon culture, such as expectations of marriage, motherhood, and spirituality.
Compton, In Sacred Loneliness. (Signature). Biographies of Joseph Smith’s plural wives.
Bradley, Pedestals and Podiums. (Signature). Discussion of the Equal Rights Amendment movement and countermovement in Utah.
Pearson, Daughters of Light (Trilogy). Citations to early documentation of exercise women in the early church exercising spiritual gifts.
Bradford, Mormon Women Speak. (Olympus). Personal essays from a number of LDS women.
Madsen and Oman, Sisters and Little Saints (Deseret). History of the Primary.
Allred, God the Mother. (Signature). Collection of Allred’s essays on Heavenly Mother doctrine, September Six, and other topics.
Cannon, As a Woman Thinketh. (Bookcraft). Collection of short essays by LDS women on life and finding peace in the church.
Corcoran, Multiply and Replenish (Signature). Collection of essays about Mormon attitudes towards sexuality.
Van Waggoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Signature).
Beecher, The Personal Writings of Eliza Roxcy Snow (USU Press).
Beecher, Eliza and her Sisters. (Aspen). Collection of essays about Eliza R. Snow.
Arrington & Madsen, Mothers of the Prophets (Deseret). Biographical sketches.
Smith & Thatcher, Heroines of the Restoration (Bookcraft). Biographical sketches.

Okay, enough from me. What are your own favorite texts in Mormon feminism?

40 comments for “Essential Texts in Mormon Feminism?

  1. I was just looking over the list, and was struck by how many of the potential feminist texts are collections of historical essays. That seems to me to be both a good thing — everyone can appreciate a biographical essay about Emmeline B. Wells or Bathsheba Smith — and a potential ghettoizing factor.

  2. Given the absence of CLP’s “women I have known and been” from either of your lists, I think that the domination of historical essays may reflect your personal view of what constitutes an “essential text,” or it may reflect the fact that you’re collecting these for Women’s history month.

    The word “book” is also limiting, otherwise I could recommend a few good plays.

  3. I would add Susanna Morrill’s White Roses on the Floor of Heaven: Nature And Flower Imagery in Latter-day Saints Women’s Literature, 1880-1920 (Routledge 2006)

  4. Actually that was the title of her dissertation. The book that she published had a different title:
    White Roses on the Floor of Heaven: Mormon Women’s Popular Theology, 1880-1920

  5. You seem to have left out Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams (Pantheon Books, 1991). After reading the book a couple of years ago, I posted short comments on it here.

  6. I think you have to include Margaret Toscano’s “The Missing Rib: The Forgotten Place of Queens and Priestesses in the Establishment of Zion” as well as perhaps some of her other work. Whether or not you agree with Toscano, in my view she plays a central role in the history of Mormon feminism. Also “4 Zinas” is a really important book — it is much more than just the biography of four women.

    Are all the books on this list feminist? Is all women’s history feminist history?

  7. Christian,

    The list is nothing more than my own off-the-top-of-my-head-or-bookshelf compilation. My own bias tends towards history, as the list probably indicates. I don’t mean to suggest that my own list is definitive — it was just meant as a starting point in the discussion.

    And thanks for mentioning Pearson again — she’s got a lot of good stuff.


    Thanks for pointing that one out — I hadn’t been aware of it, and it’s now on my to-get list.


    Inadvertence; of course, Williams is a part of this discussion.


    I haven’t yet read Four Zinas, but it’s on my to-get list. And maybe moving up – your description sounds appealing.

    I didn’t include Toscano’s Missing Rib essay, because I was (implicitly, I guess) limiting my own list to books. There’s no reason a list has to be books, though — it just seemed like a workable boundary line when I started the list.

    I thought about putting Strangers in Paradox on the original list – perhaps I should have. I was trying to remember which books I had already listed, and it got lost in the shuffle.

    As for whether all of these books are feminist, or whether all women’s history is feminist history, I think those are complicated (and very good) questions.

    A lot of the books on this list are consciously feminist. Others are not, but probably reflect a feminist sensibility (i.e., Newell and Avery). Others reflect more traditional approaches by Mormon women trying to reconcile their Mormonism with questions about gender. I didn’t want to exclude these from the discussion up front, and I tried to be sure to include some books reflecting that approach. Clearly, though, those are not going to come within the scope of some definitions of feminism.

  8. I think I’d put Anderson & Beecher’s _Sisters in Spirit_ in the top 5, maybe instead of the Godfrey & Derr book. I’d add (blushing slightly) the proceedings of the Smith Institute Seminar on Mormon women’s history in the 20th century. Also, I think you have to include the “pink issue” of Dialogue and the first few issues of Exponent II. I think that Laurel Ulrich & Emma Lou Thayne’s book, _All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir_, while aimed at a more general audience, is really important as representative of an emerging Mormon feminist voice in the late 20th century. Also, I think I’d add Marni Asplund-Campbell’s compilation of essays, _With Child_ on Mormon women and motherhood. I think I might also include _The Giant Joshua_, as an early text that interrogates authoritative Mormonism in the voice of a female narrator. Maybe also some Virginia Sorenson stuff??

  9. Good adds, Kristine.

    My own top-5 left out Anderson & Beecher because some of the interesting stuff there is reprinted in Women and Authority, and I sorta felt I shouldn’t put them both on the list. But they are both solid books, no doubt about it.

    And you’re absolutely right about the Smith proceedings (the ones I’ve read, I’ve liked very much), and Dialogue and ExII.

    I haven’t read Ulrich & Thayne, but I’ve heard positive reviews. And Asplund-Campbell is one I really need to track down.

    The Giant Joshua or A Little Lower than the Angels are definitely good fiction adds; I should probably add some Margaret Young to the list.

    Also, the old newsletters of the Mormon Women’s Forum are online (at ) and some of them are very good.

  10. hey, this has nothing to do with the post (I haven\’t read it yet) and it\’s most definitely a threadjack, but I thought this crowd would be interested in reading this article printed in the washington post. It features a cameo appearance from a formerly (I assume, given her views expressed in the article) mormon sister of ours at the very end. Enjoy, and maybe someone can post on it.

  11. Here are my top picks–
    1–Women of Covenant is of course number one. It is the best one volumn history to date aabout LDS women that covers the historical spectrum.
    2–Sisters in Spirit. I believe this book appeared before Women and Authority, so it should probably get the credit for being there first.
    3–Mormon Enigma. At last we hear Emma’s story from a sympathetic female perspective.
    4–All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir. All of these essays are wonderful. I especially liked Laurel’s commencement speech given at the “U” (this book is loaned out or I would look up the exact title.)
    5–The Flight and the Nest by Carol Lynn Pearson. This book is contemporary with Sister Saints and Mormon Sisters (both very fine books) but The Flight and the Nest is the earliest book I am aware of that tries for a true synthesis. Actually anything by CLP could go on this list, but perhaps my favorite isn’t a book at all but a recording of a talk, “Mary Poppins and the Return of God the Mother”!

    I’m going to plead guilty to a threadjack attempt right up front (but please don’t ignore the original question about Mormon books) but I would also like to know what books from the wider American culture other Mormon feminists have found most useful/interesting. Here is my list of five.
    1–At the Root of this Longing by Carol Flinders. A wonderful attempt to synthesize spiritual longings and feminist hungers. I have read this book annually for several years now.
    2–The Voice of Sarah by Tamar Frankel. A feminist woman returns to her orthodox Jewish roots and finds many amazing and new insights. (I found many similarities to my Mormon experience.)
    3–Women’s Ways of Knowing by Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule. Sisters, if you ever suspected that the traditional western educational model was a bad fit for you as a woman, you are right and this book explains why. Enlightening.
    4–Womanspirit Rising:A feminist Reader in Religion edited by Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow. There is certainly lots we would not/could not agree with here as Latter-day Saints, but all of it can set you thinking–which is all to the good.
    5–The Princessa by Harriett Rubin. Makes the case that women will never “win” playing the game by the rules set up by men for men. This book tells you how to change the rules. This book is surprisingly principled. It is also just plain fun along with insightful.

    Now for your lists too.

  12. That’s a good question, Marjorie. Oddly, I found _The Feminine Mystique_ extremely helpful but perhaps not for the usual reason: it helped me to realize that the “the church is just stuck in the 50s” rhetoric is not accurate.

    All my books are packed right now, so I can’t participate in this thread as much as I’d like to.

  13. I think you’ve got to include Annie Clark Tanner’s book _A Mormon Mother_ on this list. This is probably the most important book ever written by any Mormon woman on a Mormon topic.


  14. Thank you for this–just what I’ve been wanting. I just ordered three to start me off.

    Kristine–where can I find the proceedings from the Smith Institute?

  15. I should mention that most (but not all) of the titles that have been discussed so far are available at the major online bookstores like Amazon or BN.

    Some of the books discussed are out of print. For finding out-of-print books, there are a number of sources, including Amazon and BN’s own in-house services. You can also check at online used book clearinghouses like , , or . Most of the books on this list should be relatively inexpensive.

    Also of note — Signature Books has placed some of its volumes online in full-text, at This includes Women and Authority. Some other fun volumes are also available at that site, such as Bush and Mauss’s Neither White Nor Black.

  16. I should have phrased that as a question, Kaimi — are you interested in collecting poetry books (like WIHKAB) and plays (such as CLP’s “Mother Wove the Morning” and Susan Howe’s play Katie)?

  17. USU Press publishes a series called Life Writings of Frontier Women which is up to nine volumes. These are collections of diaries, letters, autobioraphies, etc., from nineteenth-century Mormon women. These books are well worth keeping in mind.

  18. My top five would definitely include both Women and Authority and Sisters in Spirit. I’m not sure about the other three; maybe the pink issue of Dialogue, Ulrich & Thayne’s All God’s Critters, and Bradford’s Mormon Women Speak. But this clearly reflects my personal biases; I’m quite fond of the personal essay.

    The first book related to Mormon feminism that I ever read was Marilyn Warenski’s Patriarchs and Politics: The Plight of the Mormon Woman. I don’t remember it that well now, but I think it dealt a lot with the ERA. Which reminds me, I don’t think anyone’s mentioned Sonia Johnson’s From Housewife to Heretic, which is pretty strong in its anti-Church tone, but which I would nonetheless say is of historical interest if you’re delving into Mormon feminism.

    I’d also include Elouise Bell’s collection of essays, Only When I Laugh, many of which deal with women’s experience. “The Meeting,” which portrays a sacrament meeting with reversed gender roles, is a classic.

    (And I’m tempted to add Rodney Turner’s Woman and the Priesthood, simply because I found its defense of patriarchy so disturbing that it played a role in inspiring my own feminism. :))

  19. Why bother with Exponent II when one can read the original Woman’s Exponent?

    Suzanne’s list:

    1. More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1920 by Kathryn M. Daynes
    2. Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle by Jessie L. Embry
    3. Sister-Wives and Suffragists: Polygamy and the Politics of Woman Suffrage by Lola Van Wagenen
    4. The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America by Sarah Barringer Gordon
    5. An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmelines B. Wells
    6. All of the volumes of the “Life Writings of Frontier Women” series.
    7. Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah
    8. “Heathen in Our Fair Land”: Presbyterian Women Missionaries in Utah, 1870-90.” Jana Kathryn Riess’ dissertation about Protestant women missionaries in Utah. (Excerpts were printed in the Spring 2000 Journal of Mormon History.)
    9. Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900 by Kenneth W. Godfrey, Audrey M. Godfrey and Jill Mulvay Derr.
    10. A Woman’s View: Helen Mar Whitney’s Reminiscences of Early Church History.

    I don’t really recommend “Mothers of the Prophets.”

  20. No examination of important works on progressive Mormon womanhood would be complete without Fascinating Women. I assume this omission was inadvertant, Kaimi.

  21. Whassa matter, Lynette? You’re not happy to be a doormat so that your husband/sons/brothers won’t get to heaven with dirty feet?


  22. I would add Lucy Mack Smith’s book — I especially like the critical edition Lucy’s Book, edited by Lavina Fielding Anderson. Without Lucy’s narrative — taken down and arranged largely by another woman, Martha Jane Coray — we would know so little of Joseph’s early life and particularly of the strong influence exercised by his mother over the entire Smith family. Lavina’s editorial decisions and the additional material supplied by her so enrich the original text that no other version can compete.

    If you weren’t counting, that’s three women — Lucy, Martha Jane, and Lavina — responsible for this gem.

  23. Christian,

    I see no reason not to discuss poetry or plays in this conversation; for me, personally, they’re mostly outside of the scope of my knowledge.


    Thanks for your own list — that’s very helpful. Sounds like I definitely need to track down and read Ulrich/Thayne.

    As for your second list – awesome. That is really, really helpful.

    Personally, much of my understanding of feminism has come filtered through a legal lens. So my own list would include gems like the Feminist Legal Theory primer. And lots of MacKinnon (i.e., Feminism Unmodified).

    So I’m quite glad to see a list of non-legal sources. I need to track some of those down. :)

    Bdw, Costanza,

    Nice adds, thanks.


    Which three? :)


    Of course — I don’t know how that could have slipped my mind. :)


    Very nice add. I see reference to Lucy’s Book everywhere (isn’t it the primary source on a bunch of JS stories, like the leg surgery?). I need to track me down a copy.

    Hmm, I’ll catch Lynnette and Suzanne in a separate comment – this one is getting unwieldy in size.

  24. Susan Howe’s lovely book of poetry _Stone Spirits_ needs to be included, as does the volume of poetry she helped edit _Two Centuries of Poems by Mormon Women_. The recent publication edited by Cherry Silver and Carol Cornwall Madsen, _New Scholarship on Latter-day Saint Women in the Twentieth Century_ also deserves a place. And surely Sonya Johnson’s _From Housewife to Heretic_ and Martha Nibley Beck’s _Expecting Adam_ should be on the list. (Though the last two authors are no longer LDS, their work is significant.)
    The pioneer journals are also very important. Jonathan Stapley has done fine research on Patty Sessions, and I love Eliza Partridge Lyman’s journal as well. Jane James’s story is beautifully told by Henry Wolfinger in _Worth Their Salt_ (Whitley). There’s also some fine work on Ellis Shipp and on Susa Young Gates.
    And Carol Lynn Pearson deserves more than a couple of mentions. I loved the book my VT gave me on Mother’s Day. Too bad I can’t remember the title. _A Mother’s Notebook_? Fun stuff. Carol is a deep and thoughtful person, but she also has a wild streak of humor.

  25. To my mind, “Essential Texts in Mormon Feminism” is not the same category as “Best Books about Mormon Women.” It is not the same thing as “Books by Mormon Women I Admire” nor is it “Books by Mormon Women I Don’t Admire” (as the case may be for non-feminists). It isn’t “Best Books on Mormon Women’s History” and it certain isn’t “Any Book I Can Think of That Addresses Mormon Women.” It is not even the same thing as “Books that made me a Mormon Feminist” (although there may be some overlap with that category). Before I submit my top five for “Essential Texts in Mormon Feminism, therefore, I think it important to emphasize that my list for each of these other categories would be a little different. Further, I might as well admit that there are some books on this thread that I would not include on a “best” or “essential” list of any kind.

    In no particular order:

    1. Women and Authority
    2. Sisters in Spirit
    3. Strangers in Paradox
    4. A Mormon Mother
    5. Mormon Enigma

  26. Melissa,

    What, you’re not going to share your other five lists? We’re curious as to _how_ they’d be different! :P

    But seriously, you raise some interesting points. My post was relatively bare-bones, and didn’t discuss some of the underlying questions. What is Mormon feminism? What does it mean for a text to relate to Mormon feminism? Clearly, our answers to those questions will be pivotal in the construction of our lists.

    My own thoughts, which I don’t at all believe to be authoritative or final, are along these lines:

    First, there are a multiplicity of potential LDS feminisms. Normal divisions within feminism could attach more significance to particular strands of LDS belief or culture. For instance, one strand of LDS feminism focuses on Heavenly Mother. However, it’s entirely possible to build, for instance, a type of strong Difference Feminism around LDS belief. I’m not much of a believer in gender essentialism myself, but I don’t want to be so presumptuous as to tell the LDS feminist that only equality feminism is valid. Similarly, feminism can be more or less radical in degree. And I don’t wish to bar more moderate feminists from the discussion.

    I included a number of books on the list of my non-top-5, which I wouldn’t view as particularly helpful for my own views on feminism (i.e., Cannon). At the same time, I think that it would be possible to construct a Mormon feminism in which those kinds of texts played an important role. And I think it’s important not to exclude less radical feminists from the discussion.

    (This raises questions about at what point a position is too accomodationist to consider feminist).

    Yikes – I’m running out of time to comment, and this is still woefully incoherent. I need to go get kids ready for bed, but I’ll try to follow up with more, shortly.

  27. Melissa: I am intrigued. You insist that books on Mormon feminism are not the same thing as the history of Mormon women, yet two of your five books (Mormon Enigma and A Mormon Mother) are arguably examples of precisely that. What makes these texts examples of Mormon feminism rather than simply women’s history? Put another way, having defined what Mormon feminism is not, can you give us more of a hint about what you think it is, or is Mormon feminism afflicted with an ineffable essence, which like God can recieve only negative predicates?

  28. I agree with Melissa. There isn’t history and herstory, there is only story. When women foucs on women’s studies and women’s history they are doing what the male-focused approach to history has done. There are, however, stories from a male’s perspective and also a a female’s perspectives. To have a women’s history month assumes that women have a separate history from males. That is precisely the sexist approach to history that is the problem. Let’s do away and women’s studies and just have human studies.

  29. I applaud Melissa’s attempt to make some distinctions which are long overdue. Let’s face it, some of the books that have been mentioned in this thread are spectacular in their crappiness, and that is as politely as I can put it. If this were a post about essential texts in Mormonism, and I wrote a comment in which I said that Especially For Mormons, Volume III was on my short list, I would expect and deserve to be laughed to derision. Ryan’s wisecrack about Fascinating Womanhood is clearly recognized as a joke, but there are other books in this thread that deserve the same designation. You simply cannot start with a faulty premise, add some sloppy thinking and ghastly writing, put it between the covers of a book and then expect everybody to stand at attention and salute just because you want to call it feminist writing.

    I’m all for a big tent approach to Mormon feminism that makes room for feminists of all stripes – converts to feminism, true believer feminists, liahona feminists, iron rod feminists, cultural feminists, as well as the posts- and jack-feminists – but sooner or later we need to have some idea of what we are talking about.

  30. I would imagine that virtually everyone who has posted here has a larger number of titles in her/his personal library than there exists in the entire world that could possibly–even under the most liberal definition–be considered relevant to Mormon feminism.

    Given that the field is so small, I’m not sure that the kind of distinctions and limitations suggested in the last few comments are particularly useful–follow them and Kaimi would have to retitle the post Essential Text in Mormon Feminism. With so little to work with, I think we need a big tent with history, personal voices, pioneering works, etc.–even if those titles are not all that we would wish them to be.

    I hope I live to see the day when all my books on Mormon feminism, women, women’s history, feminist theology, biograhies of women, etc. fill more than a few shelves. But we aren’t there.

  31. I don’t have a strong formal education in feminism, and would appreciate Melissa’s (or someone’s) clarifying what is meant by the different categories, insofar as they apply to Kaimi’s post on Mormonism + feminism + books.

    I nominated Lucy’s Book because it details the enormous influence of a woman in the formative years of Mormonism, an influence she exerted not because of or despite her femaleness, and not in conformity with or in opposition to any prescribed political or theological decree, but merely because she lived and acted to make the best possible use of her life. It is a bonus that this woman took the initiative to record her experiences, and that she employed the considerable talents of another woman to arrange her material, and that a third woman produced a superb scholarly edition of the raw material.

    That to me speaks of the ability and power and potential and achievement of woman (+ Mormon + book), which in my untutored view has some connection to feminism. Does it fit into one of your formal categories, Melissa? Why or why not?

  32. Mark,

    If you’re going to characterize “some of the books that have been mentioned in this thread” as “a faulty premise, add some sloppy thinking and ghastly writing,” you could at least do us the favor of indicating which books you feel fit that description.

  33. Ho Ho Ho, Kaimi, nice try, but I’m not going to take that particular bait. Look at it this way – there have been 50 or 60 titles mentioned so far in this thread. Common sense tells us that some will be better than others. Melissa was very diplomatic when she said:

    Further, I might as well admit that there are some books on this thread that I would not include on a “best” or “essential” list of any kind.

    Over at ZsDs, some of my (and your) favorite Mormon feminists occasionally have a saying by Flannery O’conner that appears on their sidebar. It says this:

    Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.

    Even though sister O’Conner was Roman Catholic, I sustain her with both hands.

    Julie, you might be right that we are not there yet. And I also wish we had more and better books covering a wide spectrum of history, essay, theology. We might differ, though, on how far along we think we are. My opinion is that Mormon feminism is advanced enough to have the self-confidence necessary to be treated, and to expect to be treated, like any other adult endeavor that is worthwhile. We do ourselves no favors when we praise that which is not praiseworthy just because it purports to be feminist.

  34. Mark, I didn’t suggest we praise crummy books; I suggested that we not overlimit either our categories or our selections.

    I’m not sure where the hesitancy to name names of books we don’t like comes from; it seems rather inappropriate given the purpose of the thread. So let me use an example: someone (I think Kristine but I am too lazy to look) mentioned _With Child_. I don’t think (most) of its essays will withstand the test of time or were incredibly profound (I didn’t particularly _like_ the book), but given that it is literally the only entry in its field (i.e., reflections on LDS motherhood), I might need to include it as an essential text. I sincerely hope that someone writes a better book in that genre (you busy, Kristine and/or Rosalynde?) but until and unless that happens, I think it foolish to talk about Mormon feminism without talking about LDS motherhood and if you want to do that and you want a text . . . well, it calls to mind that old Henry Ford line: “We’ve got any color you want as long as you want black.”

  35. Maybe a simpler way of explaining would be this:

    I think some people are interpreting Kaimi’s request as “really good texts about Mormon feminism” and others are interpreting it as “the best available texts about Mormon feminism.” Obviously, they’ll be some books in the second category that aren’t in the first. _With Child_ and a few others on this list would probably be in that category.

    Also: unless I missed something, no one has mentioned a few GC talks that, I think, are essential to the topic. I’m thinking particularly of Pres. Kimball’s “The Blessings and Responsibilities of Womanhood.”

  36. Julie,

    Thanks for taking the time and effort to explain. You are right – I did understand this post to be asking for 5 really good books about Mormon feminism. That is why my jaw dropped when I saw some of the nominations. So, we are probably more or less in agreement. And I especially agree with your suggestion “that we not overlimit either our categories or our selections.”

  37. It’s really shameful that I’ve read almost none of the books/texts listed here. Someone needs to make me a poser hat and beat me with a wet noodle until I get myself educated.

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