Saturday, March 19, 2011

Barbara Bradshaw Smith

Confession: For the past several years, I avoided learning more about Barbara Smith because of her stance on the Equal Rights Amendment. Then I had an epiphany. I’m about to admit how young and inexperienced I am, but it was before my time, and I realized I actually didn’t know anything about it. And sadly, most of the people in my age demographic that I asked about it didn’t know much more. They either hadn’t heard of it, thought the LDS church was against it because it meant everyone would have to use the same bathroom (I heard that one a lot), or were appalled that it couldn’t be passed in our enlightened times. But no one knew what it said, how it was supposed to improve things, or why people would oppose it. I decided it was time to learn about Barbara Smith. A full history of the ERA is out of the scope of this blog, but if you’re interested in learning more, its text can be found here, a good summary of church’s stance on the issue is here, and Wikipedia gave a passable general overview of its history.

Smith is best known as the General Relief Society president that spearheaded the church’s efforts in fighting against the Equal Rights Amendment. She felt that it would hurt women because it would cause them to lose previously gained rights (a stance shared by many labor activists over the years) and didn’t account for the “emotional, physical, or biological difference between the sexes.” She felt the women of the church were crucial in this discussion, and encouraged them to speak for themselves and defend their opinions in a non-combative manner, rather than standing idly by and being cast as oppressed and na├»ve. She spoke out frequently on the ERA. President Hinckley isn’t the only church leader in recent times that knows how to use modern media. Smith appeared on the Phil Donahue show to talk about the ERA, as well as the role of women in the Mormon church. She also met with the powerful and famous to explain her stance, including Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

I have mixed feelings with the ERA, and simply don’t agree with her stance on women in the military. But I respect Barbara Smith’s courage and persistence in defending her opinions. I have absolute confidence in her love for and belief in women, and know that she worked to try to help them achieve what she saw as equality. Studying Barbara Smith has made me analyze how I measure equality for women. Do I want equality of treatment, or equality of outcome? What is gained and lost by removing gender distinctions? Can you legislate away sexism? Is it better to support a vaguely worded law that could be twisted by both sides of the aisle if I support its intentions? Smith’s courage in defending her opinions has forced me to analyze and take a stand on my own, and I’m grateful for that.

Former Relief Society General President Barbara B. Smith Passes Away, by Lana Groves
Barbara Smith Biographical Sketch

Friday, March 11, 2011

Carol Gray

Carol Gray’s patriarchal blessing told her that she would be saved for a special purpose. When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 28, and became the only survivor of an experimental surgery to treat it, she started to see what that meant. Over time, she became a brave, dedicated, and influential humanitarian.

She fell into this role gradually, starting off by doing bereavement counseling for families preparing to lose loved ones. Then one day, as she’d been following the Balkan wars, she saw footage of women than had been released from Serbian camps, she and felt strongly that the Lord wanted her to do more about it than write a check for a charity. She started calling charities that worked in Bosnia to see if they would take donated items, got the Relief Society involved in collected aid, and within 3 weeks, she had 38 tons of aid. Newspapers started picking up her story, and the meetinghouse became jam-packed, then overflowing with aid. Two days before the designated charity was going to pick up their supplies, they cancelled on Gray because they had run out of funds to transport aid. She couldn’t find a convoy willing to take her materials for her, but she did find one that was willing to have her join it. Because she was already uninsurable because of her cancer that she shouldn’t have survived, her going into a war zone didn’t have the same ramifications as if her husband did. She decided to go, and she brought her daughter and some friends along in the convoy.

When they arrived in Zagreb, 400 drivers met together, and they asked for volunteers to go into the crisis area. Gray didn’t realize “crisis area” meant “still under shellfire,” and by the time she did, she was “too proud” to renege on her and her daughter’s offer to go in. Only 2 other people had agreed. It was intense. They drove through minefields. Gray had forgotten her glasses, so she had her daughter drive the truck over the swollen river on a pontoon bridge that became submerged when the weight of the truck pressed on it (Gray walked ahead through the freezing waters to steer her). She arrived in an area where 400 people had just been killed. She left knowing God had “gotten her into something that [she] couldn’t turn away from.” In time, she’d go on 23 convoys, spend tens of thousands of pounds bringing the materials there, and get into places even the UN couldn’t. She did a remarkable amount of good.

In the past decade, Gray worked to establish an orphanage in Ghana (Mmofra Trom). They started from scratch, purchasing land and sinking a well, and now in addition to the orphanage, they have established a school, where over 200 students attend, and a medical center is in the works. In addition to contributions from Bentley University, Mmofra Trom underwrites many of its paying students’ costs through providing its own tilapia pond, chicken coop, mango plantation, and vegetable garden to provide nutrition for its children.

I don’t have the courage to willingly drive into a war zone. And take my daughter along for the ride? Certainly not. But Gray trusted in the Lord, followed his promptings, and has been able to do an infinite amount of good as a result.

Source: Mormon Women: Portraits and Conversations, Edited by James N. Kimball and Kent Miles.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Avery Clark Woodruff Lambert

*Additional context is provided in my post on Helen Winters Woodruff.*

Avery decided to accept Owen Woodruff’s proposal to enter into a post-manifesto polygamous marriage after having a spiritual confirmation that it was the path God wanted her to take. Because of the persecution that the church was facing over the polygamy issue, strict secrecy was kept – only the immediate family and a handful of trusted friends knew about the marriage.

As a married woman trying to appear to the world to be single, she found herself in many awkward situations. Boys still pursued her, which caused tension when it happened when Owen was around. Pregnancy was another challenging territory to navigate. During morning sickness and miscarriage, she could only look for assistance from her immediate family, and when she started showing, she had to leave the country.

Avery frequently had to suppress her own plans and desires to protect her husband. When she moved to Mexico to protect Owen, she felt isolated from her family and friends, and initially resisted efforts from her husband and church leadership to make her residence there permanent. When the legal pressure became very heavy on Owen, she discovered through one of Helen’s children that Owen and Helen were planning to move to Europe and leave her in Mexico – she wasn’t happy about that. That said, I love that despite the restrictions on her lifestyle, she found ways to better herself and find fulfillment. After her initial move to Mexico, she attended college in Logan, and it is clear from her correspondence with Owen that he wanted her to take full advantage of her educational opportunities and find fulfillment in them. When she became pregnant again, which necessitated returning to Mexico, she taught enthusiastically at the school and made friends in the community. After Owen and Helen’s death, she may have received some financial support from the church in the beginning, but she raised her daughter Ruth independently for 10 years, at which point she remarried.

Her polygamous marriage was certainly not all roses, and she made many sacrifices for it. But despite the hardships, they did not shake her determination to act how she felt God wanted her to. While it would be easy for her to look back on her life and wonder if she had interpreted her initial promptings correctly, her account given 50 years later simply doesn’t show any doubt or regret about her decision. Her autobiography shows a woman who actively sought God’s will for her and did her best to follow it.

Source: Snyder & Snyder (2009). Post-Manifesto Polygamy: The 1899-1904 Correspondence of Helen, Owen, and Avery Woodruff.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Helen Winters Woodruff

Many of the women I’m featuring this year made very different choices than I would have, but did it with the conviction they were doing God’s will. The women featured in this post and the next are women that chose to enter post-manifesto polygamous marriages. As my purpose in this blog is to celebrate Mormon women, rather than teach Mormon history, I’m not going to provide a thorough history of the practice – plenty of more qualified individuals have already done this. I’ll just say that although estimates of the number of plural marriages that occurred after the 1890 manifesto vary widely, as do opinions about just how much the contemporary prophets encouraged/tolerated it, there were polygamous marriages that happened between 1890 and 1904 that were performed or sanctioned by apostles who felt they acted according to God’s will. Among these individuals were Owen Woodruff, Helen May Winters, and Avery Clark. Today I’m featuring Helen.

In 1901, about three and a half years after her marriage to apostle Owen Woodruff, they decided that God would bless them for entering a polygamous marriage, and he married Avery. Helen struggled. Her correspondence with Owen is peppered with references to her struggling with feelings of “selfishness,” “discouragement,” and not having the self-discipline she wanted. That said, she strove to do her part to claim the blessings she felt would come her way through living “the principle.” She received a blessing of encouragement from another polygamous woman. She was kind (although occasionally pedantic) in her correspondence and relationship with Avery. She encouraged Owen “for her [Avery’s] sake” to try to spend several months with Avery (who lived in Mexico at that time) after she gave birth. As circumstances would have it, she arrived there herself shortly after the birth of Avery’s child and took over the nursing duties for a time. Her correspondence with her husband is often warm, charming, and it is shows her love and devotion to him. She worked to control her feelings, and she strove to learn to overcome her own “selfish pleasure” and “live for others.”

In 1904, Helen and Owen were sent to Mexico to hold conferences (and avoid testifying in the Smoot trials). They decided not to be vaccinated for small pox because they assumed God would protect them from it as they did His work. They assumed wrong. Both died painfully of small pox, leaving four children behind.

I’m in no position to judge whether she was correct in interpreting her spiritual promptings. But I am in a position to admire how she acted on them. I admire that she wasn’t content to silently suffer in hopes of blessings in the hereafter, but wanted to enjoy the blessings of following God’s will in the present. She worked to improve her own attitude and took actions to make her difficult marriage full of love and good will. I love that she knew the kind of woman she wanted to become, and did her best to become it.

Source: Snyder & Snyder (2009). Post-Manifesto Polygamy: The 1899-1904 Correspondence of Helen, Owen, and Avery Woodruff.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

2011 Theme: Difference

It’s easy to admire individuals that you see eye-to-eye with. But people you don’t? That’s a little trickier. This month, I sought out accounts of women that made decisions I would not have, to my credit or shame, depending on the situation. And I’ve discovered that underneath these decisions, there are strong women with a lot to admire. While I would not have entered into the kinds of marriages they did, or put my family into the situations they did, these women acted in ways that they felt God wanted them to, and did so at great personal cost. I respect and honor their courage and faith, and have enjoyed seeing their humanity.