Latter-day Saint female historians share importance of elevating women’s voices

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Taunalyn Rutherford, second from the back left, Kate Holbrook, back center, and Lisa Tate, front center, are historians and members of the Mormon Women’s History Initiative. These female historians work to elevate women’s voices in the narrative of Latter-day Saint history within the Church’s history department. (Photo courtesy of the MWHI)

Within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is a group of female historians dedicated to elevating women’s voices in the religion’s historical narrative.

Women’s history specialists from a variety of academic backgrounds and specialties work with the publications division in the Church History Department. They work together to tell the stories of women across the world from the beginning of the Church’s creation to the present day. 

Lisa Olsen Tait is one of the specialists and is a managing historian in the department. She believes the work they do is important.

“By focusing on women — women’s voices and women’s experiences — we can have a much broader and whole new appreciation of a story that we think we may already know,” Tait said. 

Her work on women’s history in the Church began with research on Susa Young Gates, the daughter of the second president of the Church, Brigham Young. Tait described being captivated by Gate’s voice and perspective. This led her to seek out more stories of women and lend their voices to the narrative.

Lisa Olsen Tait offers her perspective on the impact of knowing the role of women in the Church’s history. Tait is a managing historian at the Church with an emphasis on women’s church history. (Mckenna Schmidt)

She said history is more than “great men and battles and legislation” and women are at the center of all of it, offering equally as important contributions. 

“Women have sacrificed and served and dedicated themselves to the work of God through the church. That’s sacred, and it has not received the amount or the kind of attention and interest that it deserves,” Tait said. 

For the historians, this looks like ensuring the prominence of women’s voices in publications such as “Saints,” on which Tait is a general editor. It also includes the compilation of discourses from women such as Eliza R. Snow, “a founder and leader of all three women’s organizations within the church,” according to the Church’s website.

Eliza R. Snow was the second president of the women’s organization, known as the Relief Society, of the Church. Historians work to capture her work and her words for current members to learn from. (Photo courtesy of The Church Historian’s Press)

Former BYU professor and Research Fellow at the Maxwell Institute Taunalyn Rutherford will fill a brand new role in the department known as the global women’s history specialist. 

In her studies of religion, Rutherford has done extensive work recording oral histories of Latter-day Saint women across the world in countries such as Sweden and India. Her new role will broaden the scope of understanding about women’s role in religion. 

“Too many people, my daughters included, don’t know the powerful stories and the tremendous things that the women in our history have done,” Rutherford said.

She said one of the goals of this area of the department is to make these stories easily accessible so more people, women especially, can hear them and feel more deeply seen and understood. 

On the Church’s website or mobile device app entitled “Gospel Library,” under the section “Church History,” anyone can access the extensive research these women have compiled. 

In it one can find “At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women” as well as a series of documents entitled, “The First 50 Years of Relief Society.”

One of the discourses in “At the Pulpit” entitled, “Every Sister Should Come Forward,” contains the words of Eliza R. Snow to a group of women in Kanab, Utah, in 1881. 

She said, “the responsibility and labor that devolve upon women are becoming more important … every sister should come forward and take hold of this work.” 

Tait and Rutherford are working to fulfill the call for women to engage in the work of the Church.

Both Tait and Rutherford emphasized, however, that these important works such as the discourses from Snow would not be this accessible without Kate Holbrook. Holbrook, who pioneered this effort and held the first formal position as a women’s history specialist beginning in 2011, passed away from cancer in August of last year.

Throughout her years at Harvard Divinity School and in receiving her Ph.D. at Boston University, Holbrook continued to come back to the questions, “What is the world like for women?” and “What is religious experience like for women?” according to an interview with the Faith Matters podcast.

These questions led her on a journey that landed her in the role she held in the history department. Holbrook emphasized in the same interview how “this is a church about wholeness. Our understanding of church history really changes when we look more carefully at what women leaders and everyday women were doing.”

The invitation to all women, according to Rutherford, is to come and see and immerse themselves in this work but to also write stories of their own, documenting their own life’s story that will one day become history.

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