Writing History and Women: Juanita Brooks
When I first started reading about gender and history, I was teaching a class on twentieth century art history. Whitney Chadwick’s Women, Art, and Society gave me an overview of the topic and drew my attention to several problem areas. Art historians have addressed the work of women artists, but their writing often fell into a few traps: 1) not putting women and their work into a larger context, 2) overemphasizing biography, and 3) interpreting women’s artwork through their biographies. Each student in that class did extensive research on a woman artist from the twentieth century and we talked about how these approaches in the scholarship limited our understanding of the subject.
I’m currently writing a paper on Juanita Brooks as a Mormon feminist foremother. Brooks is best known for writing the first scholarly book on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, published in 1950. I’ve known for a long time that part of Juanita Brooks’ archive was in my university library and last year I had a few weeks to spend some time looking through it. Mostly, I read the last twenty years of her personal correspondence and the text of some talks that she gave to groups around Utah. Many letters dealt with family news and discussion, but many also dealt with her work as a Mormon historian. I felt a bit like a voyeur in her life, but it was just so fascinating to be able to read someone else’s life in this way.
Juanita Brooks grew up in Bunkerville, Nevada and lived most of her life in St. George, Utah. She taught English at Dixie College (now Dixie State University) and even though Juanita Brooks lived in relative geographic isolation from the rest of the academic community in Utah, she engaged in many ongoing conversations about her work and the work of others through the postal system. She saved the letters she received and made a carbon copy of each letter she sent, which she wrote on her typewriter.
Brooks was a lifelong Mormon woman with a large family, but still managed to write numerous books and academic articles. She conducted much of this academic work late at night while the rest of her family was asleep. During the day, she left her iron and ironing board out, so that when people stopped by her house, she could pretend that she was engaged in the more socially accepted pastime of ironing instead of writing history. I can only think that it must have been terribly difficult for a Mormon woman to be a historian in the middle of the twentieth century, breaking so many cultural expectations and writing history that many people, including LDS Church leaders, found inflammatory. She paid a high personal cost for her work, was not allowed to hold a calling, and was shunned by people in her community. I have not experienced all of the things that she had, but as a Mormon feminist activist and scholar, I could certainly understand some of the social hardship she endured.
After spending time with her letters, I located Levi S. Peterson’s award-winning biography of Brooks, first published in 1988. The book was compelling in its narrow focus on her life, but in reflecting on what I read, I fear that it fell into the traps described by Whitney Chadwick. Peterson focused on the details of her life to the exclusion of the larger story of Brooks, of LDS Church history, of her context. I’m sure that Peterson thought he was doing justice to her story, but in reality he isolated her from the world around her, divorcing her from the wider world that she lived in. Her work is explained in terms of her biography and he does not connect her to trends of history developing in Utah at this time. He notes that Brooks visited Boston at the invitation of Claudia Bushman, the founding editor of Exponent II, but does not connect their interests in the development of a discourse around women. This approach marginalized Juanita Brooks and her work instead of connecting it to broader trends at the time. It also didn’t help that he made many comments about the plainness and unattractiveness of her appearance. I prefer my biographies of women to not be laced with sexism. By celebrating her story in a limited way, he diminished her. Don’t even get me started on the positive reviews that the book received in numerous academic journals.
I was recently reading Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Alexander Hamilton, though I was not able to get very far before it was due back at the library. While discussing the progress of Hamilton’s life, Chernow stops every few pages and writes about the significance of seemingly insignificant events. He talks about the impact of actions and their repercussions later on. He puts Hamilton into his social, historical, and racial context. He connects Hamilton to the world in which Hamilton lived, and that is what makes it an awesome and accessible biography.
We must do better.