Book Review: Sister Saints by McDannell

Scholar Colleen McDannell explores the history of women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in her well-received Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy (Nov 2018)

Earlier this month I traveled to Utah for a family funeral. While there, I came across Sister Saints by Professor Colleen McDannell. Professor McDannell is noted as one of today’s leading interpreters of American religion. She has lived in Utah for several decades as a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Utah and has observed her neighbors with the unique eye only an outsider can truly have.

Unfortunately for me, Professor McDannell was not in the United States during my visit, so I was only able to read her book, which tells a story of how women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have impacted their Church and the world.

The book is well worth reading.

Professor McDannell begins by talking of Emmeline Woodward [Wells], who had joined the Church during Joseph Smith’s lifetime as a teenage bride. By 1884 Emmeline was one of the leading women of the Church, participating in the Relief Society headed by an aging Eliza R. Snow.

Professor McDannell tells us of early women of the Church through their connections with one another, particularly with Emmeline. The standard history of early “Mormon polygamy” is regurgitated (a great frustration to this reviewer), followed by the surprising allegiance of women to the Church in the face of such a non-traditional marriage practice.

We see the women kowtow enough to overcome Brigham Young’s initial resistance to allowing them formal organization. We see the women willingly surge into roles of political and social leadership once the male leadership realizes the value of such female efforts.

Emmeline’s Relief Society was extremely progressive, working to ameliorate conditions for women and children and collecting wheat stores.

But with the turn of the century came modern efficiency, embodied by Amy Brown [Lyman]. Emmeline’s exclusion from leadership and influence is felt palpably. When the Relief Society wheat stores are turned over to the Church at large, Emmeline isn’t even invited to the ceremony.

I knew what was coming. In the 1940s, when Amy Brown [Lyman] had ascended to the role of President of the Relief Society, her septegenarian apostle husband was found intimately entangled with his long-time female lover. Amy’s resignation followed soon thereafter.

We see the modern years of Belle Smith [Spafford]. But as the sexual revolution arrives, Church leaders encourage the women of the Church to embrace a destiny as mothers in Zion. The Relief Society is subsumed as an entity within the larger priesthood-run Church. President Spafford is eventually replaced by Barbara Bradshaw [Smith], who heads up powerful political activism against the Equal Rights Amendment. President Smith and subsequent Relief Society Presidents will serve concise terms, too short to amass the power and influence enjoyed by earlier female leaders.

These years of the 1960s-1970s are characterized by two Church women who popularize strengthening marriage by becoming subservient. Helen Berry [Andelin] becomes a phenomenon with her book about strengthening men by becoming helpless, Fascinating Womanhood. Meanwhile, Daryl Van Dam [Hoole] brings the Art of Homemaking to America.

Professor McDannell recounts the emergence of alternate voices, focusing on Claudia Bushman’s Exponent II as a magazine by, about, and for Mormon Women and Sonia Johnson’s opposition to the Church in support of Equal Rights for Women. Kate Kelly’s campaign in pursuit of female ordination is also mentioned. 1

Throughout this well-trodden history, Professor McDannell tells us of parallel movements among women of other faiths. These parallel glimpses give context to what otherwise could seem to be struggles unique to women of the Church.

Professor McDannell then guides us through the sometimes inept migration within the Church from motherhood as divine female destiny to the Family Proclamation, which sees women as partners of men.

I reflected on my own life, denied entrance to MIT and West Point by small matters I didn’t realize I could negotiate. My expectation of being a full-time wife and mother was derailed by first an adulterous and abusive first husband and then a sweet second husband whose retirement plan and benefits did not match my own when an autistic child necessitated one of us become a full-time at-home parent.

Because of choices I never intended to make, I now find myself reflecting on a fantastic career as an engineer and leader, willing to go toe to toe with anyone.

It is amusing to me to read of Professor McDannell’s hope that women within the Church can eventually become empowered as I have found myself to be for decades. Yet I know that other men and women still find themselves caught in the quaint folkways of a prior era, when the Church asked women to focus on home as women of the world were leaving home behind.

I merely wish Professor McDannell had been informed of my research into the foundational reasons early Saints interacted as they did. So long as the Nauvoo era persists in the public mind as an inexplicable morass of sexual opportunism on the part of Joseph Smith, outsiders will remain fundamentally confused by Saints, pioneer or modern, male or female.

Colleen McDannell is Professor of History and Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Utah. One of the nation’s foremost experts on American religious history, she has been a Guggenheim Fellow and has held the Fulbright’s John Adams Chair in American History at Groningen University in the Netherlands. She is the author of several books including Material Christianity and Heaven: A History.


  1. I found it interesting that Professor McDannell never mentions the non-traditional sexual roles embraced by Johnson, Kelly, and other notable “dissidents.” Given the Church’s focus on traditional marriage, these non-traditional sexual orientations seemed germane.
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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Sister Saints by McDannell

  1. Those women I know who have made motherhood and homemaking a priority have done so with a will, often going against the grain of their local ‘mammon’ culture. It is inevitable that the smaller families common in even such bulwarks of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as Utah County leave women with empty nests much sooner, leaving them with the choice of becoming a second wage earner to support missions and education or to focus on ‘keeping’ a mostly empty house. There is also the alternative of becoming involved as a temple worker and in civic activities. I wonder if Professor McDannell is aware of the immense effort in all aspects of both religious and civic volunteerism that sets our community apart. I attended two funerals recently that emphasized the power of women motivated to serve their families and communities even when health was shattered.

  2. I usually enjoy reading your ideas, but I take issue with what comes across as a bit of condescension to those of us who have prioritized home and family in a different way than you have. I don’t consider myself “caught in the quaint folkways of an earlier era” because I am primary a wife and mother, nor do I feel like I am less empowered than a woman in the workforce. I hope it wasn’t your intention to imply that women are only empowered when they are employed outside the home.

    Also, I think it very unfair to lump the fascinating womanhood fad with Darryl Hoole’s book, which was primarily a how-to manual on keeping an organized and functioning household. While I am sure many of her ideas are now outdated, we all live in homes with work that needs to be organized and managed. To imply that a woman who learns to do that well is subservient is really unfair. It sounds like that was more the book’s point than your own.

  3. If you read the book, you will see instances where the organizational Church was redirecting women of the Church in deliberate ways. One specific area that I may have not mentioned sufficiently was how the amazing work on philanthropy (more advanced than other religions at the time) was effectively terminated.

    I said “sometimes inept” because the Proclamation on the Family was entirely formed without input from the able women leaders in the Church, history documented by both Aileen Clyde and Chieko Okazaki. I remember that Women’s Conference because it frankly appeared as if President Hinckley’s presentation of the Proclamation on the Family might have been a complete surprise. But apparently the Relief Society presidency had been briefed on the Proclamation a couple of days before the Conference. In retrospect I am not too bothered by this history, but it points to an organizational culture that often forgot to remember that women were available for consultation.

    When I talk of folkways of the past, I meant to refer to this culture of taking women for granted, a culture where men act without consideration of women and without seeking (often rejecting) input from women. It is a culture where women presume that they are not equally children of God and that their role is not valued. It is a cultural backwater where women who need to support their families are relegated to secondary opportunities so that men can have preferential access to primary opportunities.

    If I touted my own situation, which involved being a mother who was not in the home during working hours, it was merely because Professor McDannell’s book seemed to hint that such women were discouraged or rare amongst the Saints.

    This is also why I reflected on the importance of understanding what really happened in Nauvoo. When that formative portion of our history is misunderstood, it makes Saints seem like mindless puppets, of whom the women are even more mindless. That is emphatically not the case, nor do we need to ape the “liberation” of modernity to be valid humans.

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