Writing History and Women: Juanita Brooks

Juanita Brooks Portrait

Juanita Brooks Portrait, from the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts

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.

Nancy Ross

Nancy Ross is an art history professor by day and a sociologist of religion by night. She lives in St. George, Utah with her husband and two daughters and co-hosts the Faith Transitions podcast.

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10 Responses

  1. MDearest says:

    Brooks was a personal hero for me decades before I ever learned about modern Mormon feminism. I haven’t read Peterson’s bio yet, but I suppose I will at some point, and I can assess for myself.

    I guess I can understand about her perceived lack of traditional physical attractiveness because at that time, when I was a child, the Marilyn look was a standard for women, and that impossible standard hasn’t eased. But most women I knew in real life then (as now) were able to be attractively groomed without meeting that standard, so I always thought she was immensely, if appropriately attractive in all the ways a woman was supposed to be, and in some significant ways they were not expected to be attractive. I’m surprised her bio would make this an issue. I’ll read it in the context of your paper, which I’m looking forward too.

    Side comment: One of the things I liked best about her is that she had ancestry among the participants at Mountain Meadows which made it even more her story to tell.

  2. Caroline says:

    Thanks for this post, Nancy. I especially appreciate your reflections on what makes a good biography, particularly the importance of connecting the person to larger trends at that time. I’m looking forward to reading your paper.

    Regarding Brooks and her Mormon Meadows Massacre book, I understand that her basic thesis and explanations of why that horrible event took place still hold up very well, even though she had access to fewer resources than scholars have today. What a phenomenal historian. I really enjoyed her personal reflections in the Pink Dialogue issue too.

    • Nancy Ross says:

      I think that is an important point – her assessment of the MMM does hold up well today, though newer (good) work adds to her work. I was just reading a review of a bunch of books ok MMM and the author made that point:

      Irén E. Annus. The Mountain Meadows Massacre. Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. Vol. 12, No. 1 (August 2008), pp. 121-129

  3. Thank you. It is so good to know more about this pioneering woman. (Also, she had to pretend she was ironing? Ugh.)

  4. Moss says:

    Thank you for this.

  5. EmilyHB says:

    Your thoughts and Caroline’s comment (above) prompted me to find the box where I stashed my own copy of the Pink Dialogue issue and re-read Brooks’s essay. I do not, DO NOT, know how she managed it all. And she was *funny*.

    • Nancy Ross says:

      I think that she got used to juggling so many things and then kept adding new things. I see this in myself and in some of my colleagues. We have learned to juggle children, managing a house, relationship with a spouse, teaching, research, volunteer work, friends, church responsibilities, and personal care in a way that often looks really outrageous. And sometimes it feels outrageous. But I think that some of us are just wired to live very intense lives? Or maybe we are just terrible at saying no.

  6. Suzette says:

    Nancy – nice job bringing this wonderful to woman to life a bit – and for pointing out areas that we can do better. Thank you.

  7. Heather says:

    Love this. Love your always insightful

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