Today I’m catching a plane to St. Louis, followed by driving a rental car up to Nauvoo. I’m excited. Well, I’m always excited to visit Nauvoo, but I’m especially excited to head up there this weekend to present a paper in the annual John Whitmer Historical Association conference. JWHA is a fun organization dedicated to tracing the history of Mormonism’s many divergent branches. You can find the program here.
I will be presenting a paper on how power operated in Nauvoo. More specifically, I’ll be arguing that gender played a mostly underrepresented role in the city’s political culture. Here’s a taste from the introduction:
Why weren’t women allowed in the Council of Fifty? This seems like an odd question to ask. But I’d argue the answer isn’t as apparent as you’d think. In a way, this paper is a long answer to that seemingly simple question.
Scholars of Mormon Nauvoo often create their historical figures after their own likeness and image, male and female. The story about male Nauvoo concerns visions of deification, tampering with elections, introduction of secret rituals, manipulating the economy, and establishing a theocracy. In short, it’s a story about power. The story about female Nauvoo is about the disruption of domesticity, the practice of ritual healing, the formation of the Relief Society, and the acceptance (or rejection) of polygamy, all of which relied upon working within a patriarchal framework. In short, it’s a story about submission. The separate spheres model is seen in comprehensive overviews of the city, as they are mostly structured around framing questions that requires the Relief Society to receive its own, segregated, chapter. It is also prevalent in how we conceptualize how power operated in Nauvoo, since we generally conceive of it in a way in which power flowed in a single direction.
But historical models that fail to recognize the dynamic interplay between men and women in Mormonism’s Nauvoo project tell an imperfect story. Or, at least, an incomplete story…I want to show how the Relief Society’s actions in Nauvoo played a significant role in stories typically seen as predominantly male: electoral politics and the Council of Fifty. Neither of these two topics—the creation of a controversial political system that infuriated non-Mormon neighbors and the formation of a clandestine theocratic body destined to rule the world—typically feature many female voices. But I’d like to show that neither of these developments can be properly understood without demonstrating the role that female involvement played in both these initiatives. And more specifically for my purposes, I want to demonstrate that the way gendered power operated in Nauvoo did not work in a direct path, but rather in a cursory—and sometimes circular—pattern.
What makes me even more excited is I get to deliver this paper in the Red Brick Store, a recreation of the same building in which the Relief Society was formed. Should be a fun time.