The Invisible Hands of History

19 Aug

As I read the 1971 “pink issue” of Dialogue, much like Elizabeth I was jarred by the intimacy of the articles. I guess I’d expected treatises on women and the priesthood, discussions of the Mother Goddess, and perhaps more of a bitter, academic edginess. Instead I found that the most subversive element (besides the sometimes odd juxtaposition of handwritten quotes or drawings throughout the issue) was that many of the contributors merely described the pedestrian details of their own lives in straight-forward, engaging, and distinctive voices. Reflecting on Claudia’s earlier post, it seems like perhaps such a collection of ordinary, honest accounts by LDS women is the best defense against what Leonard Arrington terms “the male interpretation of Mormon history.”1

In a lengthy volume on the futility of social science research, John Elster warns against the danger of trusting experts in any field: when dealing with experts, we can’t always separate out fact and evidence from the unquestioning assumptions of our informant.2 To illustrate: while grappling with the evolution of present day gender roles, feminist writers are often tempted to suggest that the modern [i.e. Western] organization of the sexes stems from more or less unfair prehistoric practices. Indeed, paleontological literature tends to reinforce the stereotype of the Man-as-Hunter, Woman-as-Weaver-Gatherer. However, this has much more to do with paleontologists’ reliance on personal preconceptions for explaining the past than anything implied by the fossil evidence. If a hominid skeleton is found alongside sharp objects or tools, it is generally assumed to be male; if it is small, it is assumed to be female, although generally it might just as well be a smaller or younger male. Some paleontologists concede that the tiny skeleton of the famous “Lucy” could just as well be remonikered “Lucifer.”3

One of the great challenges to studies of early man (and woman) is that most aspects of their daily lives were perishable and thus effaced by time and nature: leather or wooden tools, clay vessels, plant-fiber textiles, and their own bodies. Our ability to explain human nature is colored by our vision of our past, and our ability to perceive the past is obscured by so many things that went unrecorded and left little or no trace. For instance, we generally believe that as a civilized species, humans are incurably covetous and warlike. Yet for every ancient powerful kingdom built on bloody conquest and slave labor, there could theoretically be dozens of others built on peace and equity that faded into oblivion as their grass and wooden cities blended back into jungle or the conquering kingdoms invaded and destroyed their books and art and social structure. As Donald Rumsfeld reminds us, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

So, for example, if generations of women once passed down knowledge and rituals representing hundreds of years of accumulated wisdom, only to have it demeaned as old wives’ tales and witchcraft until it disappeared from discourse and memory in our modern era, how would we ever know? The centerpiece of Harvard historian Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale is a singular diary kept by a backcountry early American housewife, remarkable primarily in its banality and its survival to the present day. Although it was never intended to be anything notable, referenced by anyone other than the writer, the diary serves as a platform for important insights into social practices from that time period, both supplementing and challenging conventional histories based on more visible, accessible (and largely male) sources.4 How does a heritage of ordinary women, writing about ordinary experiences, transform or enrich the lens through which we interpret our religious and sexual identities?


[1] Leonard Arrington, “Blessed Damozels: Women in Mormon History,” Dialogue Vol. 6, No. 2 (Summer 1971): 22.

[2] John Elster. 2007. Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Cambridge University Press.

[3] J.M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer, and Jake Page. 2007. The Invisible Sex. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

[4] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. 1990. A Midwife’s Tale. New York: Vintage Books.


5 Responses to “The Invisible Hands of History”

  1. amanda5245 August 19, 2010 at 1:01 am #

    Thank you so much for this beautifully written piece.

  2. ep August 19, 2010 at 4:12 am #

    She posts! đŸ™‚

    Becca, I love this post. You are thoughtful and erudite as always. And, I love the paradigmatic image that you suggest for reconceptualizing how we view history–that of the invisible hands. As you illustrate, those hands are not just female but male as well.

  3. Aaron R. August 19, 2010 at 10:16 am #

    Thank you for this post. To slide the context of your thoughts toward a more contemporary issue, what are your views of the recent efforts of Deseret Book to write the history of ‘ordinary’ .

  4. Aaron R. August 19, 2010 at 10:18 am #

    the history of ordinary LDS women.

    My efforts to include the link were unsuccessful.

  5. Amy August 24, 2010 at 1:37 am #

    The DB project is interesting and potentially exciting, though I think I’d rather have such a project done by people like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Carol Lynn Pearson than by such a highly-correlated, institutionally-attached publisher.
    What I’d really like to see is a republication of the original Women’s Exponent–especially if they could do it as beautifully as they’ve done the Joseph Smith Papers. The Eliza R. Snow or Emma Smith papers would be so much more interesting to me than yet another coffee-table feel-good mashmallow puff-piece put out by Deseret Book.
    Wow, that sounded more cynical than I meant to.
    Becca, that was a beautiful essay, and a good reminder. Thanks.

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