Faithful transgressions in the American West : Five twentieth century Mormon women's autobiographical acts
Arizona State University
Within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the “Mormon Church,” autobiography has always been an ecclesiastically authorized venue for women to speak about their views on numerous topics, including the controversial issue of nineteenth-century Mormon polygamy. Like many other women's autobiographies, however, Mormon women's personal narratives have frequently been trivialized or considered quaint pieces of social history. This examination of five twentieth-century Mormon women's autobiographies intends to validate Latter-day Saint women's life writing and argue for these women writers' place as both eloquent storytellers and astute rhetoricians who all commit “faithful transgressions,” to one degree or another, within the pages of their published texts. A “faithful transgression” occurs each time that a Mormon woman autobiographer trusts her own ideas and authority over official religious authority while also considering herself a faithful adherent to Mormonism.
As a Mormon feminist literary critic, this author works to balance an insider's understanding of these writers' religious faith with an outsider's critical awareness of the ways that they shape their experiences for both Mormon and non-Mormon audiences within a particular historical and literary context. Specifically, Mary Ann Hafen and Annie Clark Tanner must prove to readers that they made legitimate life choices to become nineteenth-century polygamous wives, and that they also have good reasons to defend or criticize the controversial marriage practice in their twentieth-century autobiographies. Similarly, Wynetta Willis Martin hopes to remedy race and religious prejudice by defending her 1966 conversion to Mormonism, a religion accused of racism for denying men of African descent to hold the priesthood until a 1978 change in Church policy. During the late twentieth century, professional writers Terry Tempest Williams and Phyllis Barber repeat many conventions of Mormon women's autobiographical writing; however, both writers also revise the tradition by constructing highly literary autobiographies that critique their Mormon culture and that use sophisticated rhetoric, narrative structure, plot development, metaphor, and irony to tell the story of their lives.