The director of what he terms “the largest single repository of Mormon women’s history sources in the world” declared that such history stands at a crossroads today.
Keith Erekson, director of the Church History Library, was the opening plenary session speaker March 3 for the annual Church History Symposium sponsored by the Church History Department and the Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University. The theme of this year’s conference was “Beyond Biography: Sources in Context for Mormon Women’s History.”
“Being at a crossroads in the 21st century isn’t all bad, considering that about a century ago in Mormon women’s history, we were at a no-roads,” Brother Erekson remarked.
“In the earliest [recorded] histories of the Church, women were typically absent,” he said. “In contrast to these Church histories, women were very present in anti-polygamy literature in the 19th century. They’re described as victims, as defenseless, as slaves, de-literated, downtrodden, dull, senseless, sorrowful, degraded, shapeless, miserable.”
The next generation of writers in the Church responded to such portrayals defensively, he said, and “that defensive stance has really been a part of writing about Mormon women ever since.”
At the turn of the century, in B. H. Roberts’ six volume History of the Church, he presented Mormon women as “noble-minded, high-spirited, intelligent, courageous, independent, cheerful, profoundly religious, capable of great sacrifice,” Brother Erekson noted.
Thus, by the time the Church passed its first century mark, Mormon women had been portrayed variously “as absent, as victims, as profiled notables, as placeholders of designated spaces, and as symbols,” Brother Erekson said.
“It would be left for another generation of writers to ask, ‘Who were these women? Would we recognize them? Whose are the faces under the big-brimmed, pioneer sunbonnets?’ ”
Later in the 20th century, “Mormon women historians began to look at women and their experience with polygamy, their experience as men left on missions,” he said. “This generation found women active in the Relief Society and other auxiliaries, active in Utah politics and the national quest for suffrage. We began to explore and understand in ways we never had before the leading sisters of the earliest generations of the Church’s history.”
Brother Erekson said that at this point, a crossroads, it is appropriate to ask: “How can we place their lives and their stories in context? What can be learned from more systematic analysis?”
Much, it turns out, largely because of the proliferation of sources of late.
In the Church History Library alone are some 9,000 diaries and autobiographies of which nearly 1,600 are written by women, Brother Erekson said.
A team of cataloguers processes about 500 print and rare materials a month, he said. “I also have a team that processes our archival materials, collections that range from maybe two or three letters to 150 boxes of letters and correspondence and papers. We work through about 300 of these collections a month.”
He invited history enthusiasts to come to the library but said they don’t even have to do that to access its holdings. The library has worked in partnership with BYU to post digital images that can be accessed through history.lds.org.
“Today we have 6.8 million digital images available right now on the catalog; 2.7 million were digitized in 2015 alone,” he said.
Brother Erekson announced to the audience that the library has now published “a brand new research guide to women and Church history; you’re the first to hear about it.”
He said, “Go to our website. Click on ‘Women in Church history.’ We’ve got links to the minutes, to the handbooks, to periodicals, to the histories. We’ve included research hints. For example, the Young Women organization in the Church has had about half a dozen names over its history. So one of the hints here tells you what those names are and what years the names applied so you could find the kinds of records you would be looking for.”
Brother Erekson said another way the library is working to make sources available digitally is to provide sources cited in the new “Gospel Topics” essays at lds.org, which cover such topics as Mother in Heaven, and Joseph Smith’s teachings on priesthood and women.
Brother Erekson invited researchers to be creative in the way they use sources, to pay attention to the function women served in the Church as well as the form, and to work harder to uncover women’s participation in institutions.
“Look at impact; look at change,” he said. “That story is told from the perspective of conversion. We might look at our Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel Database not as a record of people who walked but of people who converted. And we could start to find them and ask about their experience. Together with the new missionary database, we’ve got powerful tools to look at the story in a larger scale.”
Brother Erekson concluded his lecture with some “don’ts.”
“Don’t omit women. Ever.
“Don’t just add women somewhere as a vignette or a sidebar or a chapter or a section or on a pedestal.
“Don’t see women only as wives and daughters and as auxiliary members. There’s so much more to be seen, to be understood, to be contextualized.
“Don’t think that women’s history is only for women or for historians.
“Finally, don’t assume that you have seen all the sources.”