New Book Examines Mormon Women's Autobiographies

Ascribe Newswire/July 1, 2004

Tempe, Ariz. -- If a Mormon woman has differences of opinion with church leaders, should she -- or could she -- express them in her autobiography?

Laura Bush, a staff member in the Arizona State University Center for Learning and Teaching Excellence, researched that question for her new book, "Faithful Transgressions in the American West: Six Twentieth Century Mormon Women's Autobiographical Acts."

"Faithful Transgressions" is the first major study of Mormon women's autobiographical writing.

Bush, who earned her doctoral degree in English from ASU in 2000, examined six of the most significant "life narratives" published by Mormon women in the 20th century.

The stories range from Mary Ann Hafen's recollections of being a pioneer in the 1860s - and a polygamous wife who had to largely provide for her children alone -- to Terry Tempest Williams's story that intertwines her mother's death from ovarian cancer with an environmental message.

Each of the six autobiographies adheres to what Bush calls the "five conventions of Mormon autobiography":

  • The autobiographer provides numerous instances of God working in her own, or other people's lives;

  • She depicts herself and her Mormon family and neighbors practicing or failing to practice basic gospel principles;

  • She crafts detailed ethnographic histories of life in her close-knit Mormon community;

  • She defends her small-town Mormon upbringing, and sometimes, Mormonism in general;

  • She intends her life story to reach well beyond an audience of Mormon family and friends to the general reading public.

Each life story also includes "transgressive writing," which Bush says occurs "when a Mormon woman writer trusts her individual conscience and expresses ideas or beliefs that resonate within her as being right and true but which she knows implicitly or explicitly violate rules of Mormon doctrine or cultural norms within her faith community."

Williams wrote, for example, "Although an orthodox Mormon may think free agency is about honoring obedience and finding freedom within that obedience, spiritual laws and principles, I've never honored that belief. For me, the most important value is independent thought, the freedom to choose a creative path. That's how I have been able to survive within the Mormon tradition."

The authors' gender is an important part of the six autobiographies because of Mormon women's "institutionally subordinate position within the LDS Church and because of the relatively rigid gender roles Mormon women have been trained to take up as daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers in a patriarchal religious tradition," Bush wrote.

"It should not be surprising that issues of authority become paramount to Mormon women writers, including the six autobiographers in this study. When inscribing particular aspects of their lives and personal views, all six authors anticipate that their authority will be challenged."

"Because they are unordained women, they can only hope (perhaps futilely) to establish their elusive right to explain, defend and critique Mormon doctrines or practices."

Bush said she believes it is necessary to view Mormon women writers as a separate subgroup within the Mormon Church, "not only because of the institutionalized gender separation in practice, but because Mormon women writers themselves experience their gender as an important distinguishing characteristic throughout their lived experiences."

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