"Our Utah Girls" : Girls and Young Women in the Transitional Mormon Church
East Lansing, Michigan
Michigan State University
History -- Doctor of Philosophy
How the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) transitioned from practicing the most unconventional marriage system in the nation to representing a model of family stability has surfaced as one of the most riveting and perplexing questions in the field of American religious history. A common explanation for this remarkable transition centers upon the assumption that church members were eager to be welcomed into and prove their allegiance to the United States after contending with intense persecution and ostracism. However, this dissertation complicates this narrative and explores how acclimation into the mainstream United States was not a swift process for the church's youngest female members.
My dissertation examines how the church's young women contended with and pushed back against the leadership's expectations during this transition. The LDS church leadership and influential membership exercised their expectations and anxieties for the future of Mormonism through attitudes and actions directed toward adolescent female church members. Mormon girls embodied multiple possibilities for the future of the religion in the minds of the church leaders and the wider community. In the most literal sense, they represented the continuation of the religion through their desire to marry and have children. The leadership envisioned that adolescent Mormon women held the ability to push the religion into the twentieth century while still maintaining sacred religious traditions. Young women could impede the leadership's desires by choosing intermarriage, not marrying at all, and failing to want children. To counteract these possibilities, the leadership looked to methods such as the organization of youth groups and the development of prescriptive literature to outline their expectations of how girls should act as proper Mormon women.
An exploration of young women's diaries, letters, school notebooks, memoir, and other life-writings illuminates how young women used a variety of methods and spaces to assert their agency within Mormonism. While some young women developed autonomy within church structures like the auxiliary female groups, others depended on secular higher education and professional opportunities to embrace their agency outside of the church. Their acts of agency were not necessarily directed against the church, but a way for young women to grapple with changes in their church, families, and personal lives.