Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Flight and the Nest

Cross-posted at the BYU Parity blog

I just finished a great book about 'the Woman question' in Mormonism from a historical perspective--which is a convoluted way of saying it was basically a book about the struggle for Mormon women went through for more gender equality through the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is titled "The Flight and the Nest" by Carol Lynn Pearson from 1975 and I highly recommend it.

The book's chapters consist of Pearson's summaries and contextualizations framing meaty quotes from the Woman's Exponent, The Relief Society Magazine, and The Young Woman's Journal. Topics include

  • The general societal undervaluation of women at the time. One of the first telegraph messages in America was of the birth of "only a girl."
  • Mormonism's unique doctrines that taught women that they were eternally to be considered man's equal. I learned that Eliza R. Snow's hymn that we now know as "O My Father" was originally titled "Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother."
  • The propriety of women entering the workforce. Brigham Young once encouraged women to "stand behind the counter, study law or physics, or become good bookkeepers and be able to do the business in any counting house."
  • Women's roles in politics. There's a great 1895 picture of Susan B. Anthony and Reverend Anna Howard Shaw with several prominent Mormon women who were involved in the Women's suffrage movement, plus the classic story of Mattie Hughes Cannon, a Democrat, defeating her husband Angus Cannon, a Republican and president of the Salt Lake Stake, in an 1896 election for State Senator.

The book is remarkable in showing just how progressive Mormon women (and some men) of the 19th and early 20th centuries were. They were adamant and proud to declare the eternal truth that man and woman "will always have need of the other; they will walk together, side by side, and find completeness in each other." This is precisely the message Parity strives to send, for women and men at BYU, in our nation, and around the world.

One of my personal favorite chapters was titled The True Helpmeet about the nature of the marriage relationship. A 1923 Relief Society Magazine article, quoting Frank Crane, spoke of the three ways man can look at woman:

"You can look up and call her (with more or less mental reservation) an angel, divine and ethereal... It is usually temporary and easily slumps into contempt, jealousy, and all kinds of morbidities, for it is in itself untrue and morbid.

"Secondly, you can look downward on her. You can play the autocrat. You can emphasize your lordship and mastery. And no one but a petty soul could possibly enjoy doing this.

"Thirdly, you can look her level in the eye, as your equal, your pal, your friend and companion."

I think the first attitude is quite widely held today among men in the church, to some degree or another, and is therefore one of the more immediate problems we face when working towards more gender equality. Women are not born saints on a pedestal, they are just as susceptible to temptations, pettiness, unkindness, and most all other vices as men are. We are all working towards becoming more Christlike together, and no good can come of pretending like half of us have a tremendous head-start.

I also very much appreciated the "Mormonness" of the feminism expressed in the book. Family always came first in everyone's priorities. While women pushed for the freedom to work in the same fields as and receive equal pay as men, there is a consistent recognition that raising a righteous family is the most important job of any mother. But of course it cuts both ways, and fathers are not given a free pass on family involvement either--both need to work together--and they quoted scriptures to prove it. There was also a wonderful discussion of an enlarged view of the very word "motherhood"--John Taylor spoke of how, although Eliza R. Snow never bore any children, she should surely be considered a "mother in Zion," drawing parallels with George Washington who is called the father of our nation despite his lack of offspring. Leah Widstoe adds that "all intelligent worth-while work for social betterment in private life or in organized activity is but an enlarged Motherhood acting for the uplift of mankind."

There is a lot more I would love to say about this book--the poems, the history, Pearson's final chapter addressed to her daughters, the suffragist hymn to the tune of Hope of Israel, so much!--but this post is already long, so I'll just say this: read this book. We have a rich heritage of gender equality in our religion, and it is inspiring and flat-out awesome. It gives me so much hope to see how much the condition of women has improved in just a century, and I'm excited to see how much farther we can get!


  1. Wow. This is one of the most fascinating posts I've read in a bit. I've got to check this out.

  2. Carol Lynn, also known, I believe, for writing the screenplays for classics like Cipher in the Snow, does some pretty cool stuff. I never read "The Flight and the Nest" though, having had to discover all this stuff myself in my youth through reading original documents and papers. What a resource this book must be! Also Austin... I love you man! Knowing there are guys in the world who can write stuff like this gives me great faith in humanity.

  3. This study will take you amazing places where you will realize the magnitude of achievement by Mormon Women both in the early church and today.

  4. GMB - Do; it's a fun and quick and inspiring read. But I guess that's just rehashing my whole post... :)

    Megan - I had no idea Carol Lynn did the screenplay for that! I've always loved that short video, and now I just have one more reason for loving her. And... aw shucks!

    Quiet Song - I certainly hope so, y'all have done and continue to do so much. One of my Mormon dreams has been to teach a whole Sunday School / Priesthood lesson using solely quotes and examples of women. This book is helping make that happen.

  5. I love your optimism. With any luck, it'll be infectious. Also, fantastic Mormon Dream.

  6. Give. me. this. book. NOW.

    I'm excited to read it! And you are a fantastic feminist

  7. I remember hearing that Utah women were among the first to be able to vote in the U.S. Not sure if it's true or not, but I am amazed at how progressive those early Mormon women were. Thanks for the review, I'll definitely have to pick this one up.

  8. Merinmel - I like that idea, let's start an epidemic.

    Diana - you have it. Sorry it took a few minutes.

    Adam - this book does talk about that. Wyoming was the first territory to allow women to vote, followed quickly by Utah, but apparently Utah had an election scheduled before Wyoming, so they were the first to vote (in the modern era--some interesting Googling reveals that New Jersey women could vote between 1776 and 1807, for example).

  9. to jump in on your re to Adam, that's interesting. I recall Sarah talking about how after every (every) revolution, women always have less rights post-revolution than they did pre. As this includes the American Revolution, I'm curious as to the context of New Jersey's vote for women.

    as to the epidemic: they'll never know what hit 'em

  10. Merinmel - The clearest details, as per usual, are on wikipedia

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